This article was written at a point in time, 2014, at which the National Geographic Society needed to consider how to display geopolitical change in the world on its maps.

Depending on whom you ask, Crimea is either part of Russia or part of Ukraine. For mapmakers, that disagreement presents a challenge.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, meaning it added Crimea to its own territory. All maps made prior to that year show the region as part of Ukraine. Russia claims the region is now officially and legally a Russian territory, but Ukraine and much of the rest of the world do not agree. How should mapmakers react to this situation? Should they continue to show Crimea as part of Ukraine? Or should they change their maps to show it as part of Russia?

The decision to change how a region is shown on a map is not a simple one. It is only made after careful research and conversations with many experts.

The National Geographic Society is one of the few organizations that don't work for a government and have a say on how maps should look. Its approach is not to pick sides when two countries are arguing over a territory, but simply to show that the territory is being disputed.

Disputed Areas Are Shaded Gray

To show that an area is in dispute, "we shade the area gray," Juan Valdes said. Valdes is the geographer of the National Geographic Society. A geographer is someone who studies the layout of Earth and of human societies.

National Geographic has changed how it shows Crimea on the maps it produces. The change is accompanied by text explaining the dispute between Russia and Ukraine. National Geographic has followed this convention on many occasions. For example, it did the same when mapping Abkhazia, Gaza and the West Bank, South Ossetia and a number of other disputed territories.

To explain its position further, National Geographic released a statement on March 18, 2014. It declared that National Geographic's goal is to reflect the current political situation to the best of its ability. Most boundaries shown in its maps are stable and accepted by everyone. Those that are disputed "receive special treatment," the statement said. They are shaded gray and are accompanied by an explanation.

When a region is disputed, the statement said, National Geographic reflects that fact in its maps. This does not mean that National Geographic recognizes one territorial claim over another, the statement pointed out. It does not mean that it agrees with either side. It just shows that the dispute hasn't been solved yet.

Maps Should Reflect Current Situations

To this day, most countries have not recognized Crimea as part of Russia. Peter Velasco was a spokesperson for the United States State Department, the part of that government that deals with foreign countries. In 2014, Velasco told National Geographic: "We reject the Russian attempt to annex Crimea; therefore, we have no plans to change U.S. government maps." He said the annexation is "a threat to international peace and security and against international law. Crimea is part of Ukraine." The U.S., he said, rejects Russia's "illegal land grab."

National Geographic's position is that while maps should not take sides, they should show the world as it is. Maps should be changed to reflect the current situation as well as possible.

William Pomeranz is an expert on politics in Europe, Russia, and Asia. The situation in Crimea, he said, poses a real problem for mapmakers. Russia incorporated Crimea and claimed it as its own territory, and yet almost no one recognizes this claim, Pomeranz said. When it comes to illustrating that situation on a map, "You're not going to get everyone happy."

How Should Crimea Be Shown on National Geographic Maps
Map of the disputed territory of Crimea, which was seized by Russia despite belonging to the Ukraine. Politically disputed territories represent a special challenge for cartographers.
cartographer
Noun

person who makes maps.

conundrum
Noun

puzzling question or problem.

legitimate
Adjective

following a set of laws or rules.

parliament
Noun

legislature, usually a democratic government's decision-making body.

Noun

land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.