John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
If you’re on the East Coast, it could be Australia.
Say you’re standing perpendicular to an East Coast beach gazing out over the waves. What continent are you facing—Europe or Africa, right?
Well, if you happen to be in certain places from South Carolina up to Newfoundland, your eyes could be directed all the way to Australia. That’s evident in these nifty new maps from cartographer Andy Woodruff, who’s drawn virtual “lines of sight” for the shores of every continent.
Here are the spots where somebody looking over the horizon will face Australia and Oceania (the brighter ends of the lines indicate where the looker is stationed):
And these are the locations on five continents (Antarctica appears left out of the party) where people peering straight out will eyeball North America:
“It can be a little hard to believe without pulling out a globe and a piece of string,” emails Woodruff, “which I definitely did several times while making those maps!”
He ascribes the counterintuitiveness of these connections to a couple things: the planet’s roundness and “wacky,” crooked coastlines. The mapmaking process is thoroughly explained here, but this is the relevant part for coasts:
Taking “across the ocean” to mean directly across, perpendicular to the coast, then what’s across the ocean depends on where you’re standing! To get a rough idea of what direction the world’s coastlines face, I’m calculating the angle between every pair of adjacent coastal vertices in medium scale Natural Earth data, then placing a point in between them and measuring the view from there based on that angle….
I’m not entirely certain that I have all the math right, but I think it’s at least close. Even we cartographers sometimes have a shaky grasp of map projections and spherical geometry.
But who has time for correct math? I’ve got to start training for the straight-line swim from the number one beach in my life—30th Street in Ocean City, New Jersey—to Brazil.