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Comparing State Sizes

Let's be honest. Alaska gets the short straw on most US maps. Alaska is large—and I mean very large. It takes the 23 smallest states combined—from North Carolina to Rhode Island—to match Alaska in size. Most US maps conserve space by putting far-flung Alaska and Hawaii into inset maps in the bottom left corner. This move allows for richer detail to be included in the lower 48 states, and the trade-off is that sparsely populated Alaska doesn't lose too much in terms of detail. What becomes lost, however, is the sense of scale. This map is a fun and engaging way to bring it back.

The base of this map is the 48 contiguous states faded into the background. At the same scale, Alaska was placed on top for context—its east-west stretch is from California to West Virginia. Its north-south extent spans from Minnesota well into Texas. At 665,000 square miles, it makes up almost one-fifth of the US's entire area. If it were its own country, Alaska would rank 19th-largest in the world, between Libya and Iran.

That little notch cut out of the top of Connecticut is the "Southwick Jog."

After I placed Alaska prominently in the top center, I arranged all other 49 states and the District of Columbia at the same scale and in a map projection that keeps areas proportionally scaled. In addition, each state is rendered in high detail, so you get to see all the nooks and crannies of the coastlines and borders, such as Connecticut's "Southwick Jog," Kentucky's exclave cut off by the Mississippi River called "Kentucky Bend," or North Carolina's Outer Banks. Each state was moved away from its traditional neighbors so you can make comparisons you don't normally see. For instance, Delaware is positioned immediately next to Alaska's Saint Lawrence Island—home to fewer than 1,500 residents mostly of native Yupik descent. The two lands are virtually the same size.

Each state and the District of Columbia includes a few state facts:

  • Postal abbreviation

  • Capital city

  • Largest city

  • State bird

  • State flower

  • Year and order in which it entered the union

Some of these categories proved trickier than I imagined! Postal abbreviation was straightforward. So was the year and order of entry into the United States and capital city. Largest city was mostly straightforward, though few people outside Missouri may realize that Kansas City (pop. 495,000), when judged solely by population within city limits, is larger than St. Louis (pop. 300,000). By contrast, the metro area of St. Louis (2.8 million) has a larger population than Kansas City's (2.1 million).

Robin comparison. European robin (left) and American robin (right). (Image sources: European robin, Deepak Sundar; American robin, Dakota Lynch; both from Wikimedia Commons.)

Identifying state birds is where things got a little trickier. Some states have multiple state birds. For example, Tennessee has a state bird—mockingbird—and a state game bird—bobwhite quail. For an instance like this, I usually went with the bird that was not a "specialty" designation such as "game bird." However, the states' official designations refer to the same species by different common names. Michigan's official declaration of 1931 named "robin redbreast" the official state bird. (Aside: Robins have always seemed to have orange breasts to me, but I guess "robin orangebreast" just isn't alliterative enough. And, come to find out, "robin redbreast" is what the British call the European robin, so when European settlers came here and saw a similar-breasted bird, they gave it a similar name even though the two birds aren't closely related.) Well, two other states have the robin as their state bird—Wisconsin (referred to as "robin") and Connecticut ("American robin"). How to reconcile these three inconsistencies? I wanted to ensure consistency throughout the map (and avoid Latin), so I used the Audubon Guide to North American Birds to make the final determination. Hence the following standardizations are mine:

  • Robin redbreast (Michigan) and robin (Wisconsin) became American Robin.

  • Mockingbird (Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas) became northern mockingbird.

  • Willow goldfinch (Washington) and eastern goldfinch (Iowa and New Jersey) became American goldfinch.

  • Cardinal (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia) became northern cardinal.

  • Yellowhammer (Alabama) became northern flicker.

The forget-me-not, state flower of Alaska.

State flowers became an even trickier proposition than state birds. Like birds, some states had more than one state flower. Let's use Tennessee as our example again. It has two state wildflowers (passion flower and Tennessee echinacea) as well as a state cut flower (Iris). With situations like these, I tended to go with what seemed to be the primary designation. Like birds, I wanted some consistency (and to avoid Latin) among state flowers, but a species of flower seems to have a greater number of common names than birds, so I tended to keep whatever designation from the state I could find. I did make a few modifications. I tried to standardize states that had the same flower but used different names, such as the wild prairie rose for North Dakota and Iowa or the violet for Illinois and Rhode Island. Wisconsin specifies the wood violet as its state flower, with a different species name than Illinois and Rhode Island.

For those who want to know a little more of the nitty-gritty behind the cartography, all states use an Albers Equal-Area Projection. The 48 contiguous states are all from the same projection center point as the background map. Alaska and Hawaii have their own individual projection center points. All of them are at a scale of 1:5,350,000. Map scales are unit agnostic. What that means is that regardless of what unit you measure with, one of them on the map will equal 5,350,000 of them in the real world. In other words, one inch measured on the map will equal 5,350,000 inches (84.4 miles) in the real world. The state shape data comes from the US Census Bureau. Layout was done in Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop.

The map is ideal for home and school classrooms, offices, game rooms, children's bedrooms, and more! Purchase a copy of the poster here.

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