Hic Sunt Dracones; Why Your Map Will Never Be Finished

Somewhere around 1510 what is now known as the Lenox Globe was made. Apart from being either the second or third oldest globe in existence, the Lenox Globe is infamous for the first appearance of the Latin Phrase HIC SVNT DRACONES, which is today loosely translated as here be dragons. This is probably not a reference to the precise location of dragons, but is thought to be a reference to the Kingdom of Dragoian in Sumatra which was noted by Marco Polo during his travels. Nowadays the phrase is commonly taken to mean “here is stuff we don’t know about or which hasn’t happened yet”.

All of which reminds me of a conversation I had with a member of the finance team in a previous job; the company name is redacted to prevent embarrassment. The conversation went something like this … “So, when will this map of yours be finished?” “It won’t; the world is always changing”. “Well I need a date for reporting against, so can I say the map will be finished at the end of the financial year?”

Honour was satisfied. I put across my point and finance got a date for when the map would be finished. Which is course it wasn’t, isn’t and never will be.

Which brings me to a great example of why the map will never be finished and that started taking place in December of last year when then Tongan volcano on the island of Hunga Tonga woke up. This is what Hunga Tonga looks like today on Google Maps.

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Hunga Tonga is comprised of two islands and this map is pretty accurate up to July of 2014, as this Pléiades satellite image shows.

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But in December, the map started to change and it’s continued to change rapidly and dramatically as you can see from this follow up image taken two months ago. The eruption of the volcano has not only stripped all the vegetation off of the islands but the left hand island has sprouted a whole new section of land with a clearly smoking crater, filled with a sulphurous lake. All in all, Hunga Tonga has added another 500m of new land, reaching up to 250m above sea level.

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Spectacular though this is, none of this is surprising as Tonga sits on the infamous ring of fire, where tectonic plates are being dragged beneath each other, making a ring like zone which is home to around 90% of the world’s earthquakes and around 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes.

For now, this part of the map needs to be updated. I’m not singling Google out for not updating their map, everyone’s map now needs updating and will continue to need to be updated. The map will never be finished. This is one more part of the world where Hic Sunt Dracones doesn’t apply any more. But maybe, just maybe it does and the sulphurous fumes wafting from Hunga Tonga’s crater aren’t really from a volcano but from a sleeping dragon hidden just out of sight. Maybe here might be dragons.

A hat tip is due to my wife Alison for pointing this out to me; being married to a map geek means she knows a good maps story when she sees one.

Map image from Google Maps. Pléiades imagery courtesy of Airbus Defence & Space. Your Satnav is wrong by Alister on Flickr, CC-BY-NC-ND

Written by Gary

A self-professed map addict, Gary has worked in the mapping and location space for over 20 years through a combination of luck and occasional good judgement. Gary is co-founder of Malstow Geospatial, which provides handmade, professional geospatial consulting. A Fellow of the RGS, he tweets about maps, writes about them...
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3 Comments

Cory Rahman

Love this! Many times have I gotten the question “But wait.. Hasn’t everything been mapped by now?” sigh

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