Crimean crisis for cartographers: is it part of Ukraine or Russia?

Maps today are updated often so Russia’s actions in Crimea have left cartographers with a decision to make:

Online mapping tools from Google and Bing, as well as Mapquest, all list Crimea as a part of Ukraine. Wikipedia’s community is embroiled in a fierce debate over whether or not to recognize Russia’s annexation of the region.

National Geographic still has not yet reached a decision on the matter, and is waiting for annexation to be formally approved. They said in a statement:

Most political boundaries depicted in our maps and atlases are stable and uncontested. Those that are disputed receive special treatment and are shaded gray as “Areas of Special Status,” with accompanying explanatory text.

In the case of Crimea, if it is formally annexed by Russia, it would be shaded gray and its administrative center, Simferopol’, would be designated by a special symbol. When a region is contested, it is our policy to reflect that status in our maps. This does not suggest recognition of the legitimacy of the situation.

Rand McNally, on the other hand, takes its mapping data from the State Department, and so will leave its data as it currently stands. It could be a long time before the U.S. formally recognizes Russia’s takeover.

It sounds like this comes down to: (1) which authority each cartographer relies on plus (2) the perceived legitimacy of Russia’s actions. While maps may simply reflect these political realities, they also have the potential to shape current and future perceptions of the area.

If only we could go back to the good old days (20 years ago?) where it took some time for maps to be updated. As a kid, I loved maps and I remember the shift in the early 1990s to a fragmented Yugoslavia (the National Geographic Geography Bee seemed to like focusing on this rapidly changing region as well) as well as emerging post-Soviet states. It takes some time for all these maps to be updated, from online sources to printed atlases to school textbooks and maps that hang on classroom walls. Cartographers in the past might have had more time to wait out a situation like this to see what happens while today people want the newest information now.

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