A map projection is a way to represent the curved surface of the Earth on the flat surface of a map. A good globe can provide the most accurate representation of the Earth. However, a globe isn’t practical for many of the functions for which we require maps. Map projections allow us to represent some or all of the Earth’s surface, at a wide variety of scales, on a flat, easily transportable surface, such as a sheet of paper. Map projections also apply to digital map data, which can be presented on a computer screen.
There are hundreds of different map projections. The process of transferring information from the Earth to a map causes every projection to distort at least one aspect of the real world – either shape, area, distance, or direction.
Each map projection has advantages and disadvantages; the appropriate projection for a map depends on the scale of the map, and on the purposes for which it will be used. For example, a projection may have unacceptable distortions if used to map the entire country, but may be an excellent choice for a large-scale (detailed) map of a county. The properties of a map projection may also influence some of the design features of the map. Some projections are good for small areas, some are good for mapping areas with a large east-west extent, and some are better for mapping areas with a large north-south extent.
Some projections have special properties. For example, a Mercator projection has straight rhumb lines and is therefore excellent for navigation, because compass courses are easy to determine.