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Geographic coordinate system

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Map of Earth showing lines of latitude (horizontally) and longitude (vertically), Eckert VI projection; large version (pdf, 3.12MB)

A geographic coordinate system is a coordinate system that enables every location on the Earth to be specified by a set of numbers. The coordinates are often chosen such that one of the numbers represent vertical position, and two or three of the numbers represent horizontal position. A common choice of coordinates is latitude, longitude and ellipsoid height.[1]

Geographic Latitude and longitude

Main articles: Latitude and Longitude
Latitude phi (φ) and Longitude lambda (λ)

Latitude (abbreviation: Lat., φ, or phi) is the angle between the equatorial plane and a line that is normal to the reference ellipsoid, which approximates the shape of Earth to account for flattening of the poles and bulging of the equator. Lines joining points of the same latitude are called parallels, which trace concentric circles on the surface of the Earth, parallel to the equator. The north pole is 90° N; the south pole is 90° S. The 0° parallel of latitude is designated the equator, the fundamental plane of all geographic coordinate systems. The equator divides the globe into Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Longitude (abbreviation: Long., λ, or lambda) is the angle east or west of a reference meridian between the two geographical poles to another meridian that passes through an arbitrary point. All meridians are halves of great circles, and are not parallel. They converge at the north and south poles.

A line passing to the rear of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (near London in the UK) has been chosen as the international zero-longitude reference line, the Prime Meridian. Places to the east are in the eastern hemisphere, and places to the west are in the western hemisphere. The antipodal meridian of Greenwich is both 180°W and 180°E.

In 1884, the United States hosted the International Meridian Conference and twenty-five nations attended. Twenty-two of them agreed to adopt the location of Greenwich as the zero-reference line. San Domingo voted against the adoption of that motion, while France and Brazil abstained.[2] To date, there exist organizations around the world which continue using historical prime meridians before the acceptance of Greenwich and the ill-attended conference became common-place.[3]

The combination of these two components specifies the position of any location on the planet, but does not consider altitude nor depth.

This latitude/longitude "webbing" is known as the conjugate graticule.

In defining an ellipse, the short (vertical) diameter is known as the conjugate diameter, and the long (horizontal) diameter—perpendicular, or "transverse", to the conjugate—is the transverse diameter.[4] With a sphere or ellipsoid, the conjugate diameter is known as the polar axis and the transverse as the equatorial axis. The graticule perspective is based on this designation: As the longitudinal rings — geographically defined, all great circles — converge at the poles, it is the poles that the conjugate graticule is defined. If the polar vertex is "pulled down" 90°, so that the vertex is on the equator, or transverse diameter, then it becomes the transverse graticule, upon which all spherical trigonometry is ultimately based (if the longitudinal vertex is between the poles and equator, then it is considered an oblique graticule).

UTM and UPS systems

The Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) and Universal Polar Stereographic (UPS) coordinate systems both use a metric-based cartesian grid laid out on a conformally projected surface to locate positions on the surface of the Earth. The UTM system is not a single map projection but a series of map projections, one for each of sixty zones. The UPS system is used for the polar regions, which are not covered by the UTM system.

Stereographic coordinate system

During medieval times, the stereographic coordinate system was used for navigation purposes.[citation needed] The stereographic coordinate system was superseded by the latitude-longitude system.

Although no longer used in navigations, the stereographic coordinate system is still used in modern times to describe crystallographic orientations in the field of materials science.[citation needed]

Geodetic height

To completely specify a location of a topographical feature on, in, or above the Earth, one has to also specify the vertical distance from the centre of the Earth, or from the surface of the Earth. Because of the ambiguity of "surface" and "vertical", it is more commonly expressed relative to a precisely defined vertical datum which holds fixed a some known point. Each country has defined its own datum. For example, in the United Kingdom the reference point is Newlyn, while in Canada, Mexico and the United States, the point is near Rimouski, Quebec, Canada. The distance to Earth's centre can be used both for very deep positions and for positions in space.[1]

Cartesian coordinates

Every point that is expressed in ellipsoidal coordinates can be expressed as an x y z (Cartesian) coordinate. Cartesian coordinates simplify many mathematical calculations. The origin is usually the center of mass of the earth, a point close to the Earth's center of figure.

Shape of the Earth

The Earth is not a sphere, but an irregular shape approximating a biaxial ellipsoid. It is nearly spherical, but has an equatorial bulge making the radius at the equator about 0.3% larger than the radius measured through the poles. The shorter axis approximately coincides with axis of rotation. Map-makers choose the true ellipsoid that best fits their need for the area they are mapping. They then choose the most appropriate mapping of the spherical coordinate system onto that ellipsoid. In the United Kingdom there are three common latitude, longitude, height systems in use. The system used by GPS, WGS84, differs at Greenwich from the one used on published maps OSGB36 by approximately 112m. The military system ED50, used by NATO, differs by about 120m to 180m.[1]

Though early navigators thought of the sea as a flat surface that could be used as a vertical datum, this is far from reality. The Earth can be thought to have a series of layers of equal potential energy within its gravitational field. Height is a measurement at right angles to this surface, and although gravity pulls mainly toward the centre of Earth, the geocentre, there are local variations. The shape of these layers is irregular but essentially ellipsoidal. The choice of which layer to use for defining height is arbitrary. The reference height we have chosen is the one closest to the average height of the world's oceans. This is called the geoid.[1][5]

The Earth is not static as points move relative to each other due to continental plate motion, subsidence, and diurnal movement caused by the Moon and the tides. The daily movement can be as much as a metre. Continental movement can be up to 10 cm a year, or 10 m in a century. A weather system high-pressure area can cause a sinking of 5 mm. Scandinavia is rising by 1 cm a year as a result of the melting of the ice sheets of the last ice age, but neighbouring Scotland is only rising by 0.2 cm. These changes are insignificant if a local datum is used, but are significant if the global GPS datum is used.[1][why?]

Expressing latitude and longitude as linear units

On the GRS80 or WGS84 spheroid at sea level at the equator, one latitudinal second measures 30.715 metres, one latitudinal minute is 1843 metres and one latitudinal degree is 110.6 kilometres. The circles of longitude, meridians, meet at the geographical poles, with the west-east width of a second naturally decreasing as latitude increases. On the equator at sea level, one longitudinal second measures 30.92 metres, a longitudinal minute is 1855 metres and a longitudinal degree is 111.3 kilometres. At 30° a longitudinal second is 26.76 metres, at Greenwich (51° 28' 38" N) 19.22 metres, and at 60° it is 15.42 metres.

The width of one longitudinal degree at latitude <math>\scriptstyle{\phi}\,\!</math> can be calculated by this formula (to get the width per minute and second, divide by 60 and 3600, respectively):

<math> \frac{\pi}{180}\cos \phi (M_r) \!</math>

where Earth's average meridional radius <math>\scriptstyle{M_r}\,\!</math> approximately equals 6,367,449 m. Due to the average radius value used, this formula is of course not precise. A better approximation of a longitudinal degree at latitude <math>\scriptstyle{\phi}\,\!</math> is

<math>\frac{\pi}{180}a \cos \beta \,\!</math>

where Earth's equatorial radius <math>a</math> equals 6,378,137 m and <math>\scriptstyle{\tan \beta = \frac{b}{a}\tan\phi}\,\!</math>; for the GRS80 and WGS84 spheroids, b/a calculates to be 0.99664719. (<math>\scriptstyle{\beta}\,\!</math> is known as the parametric or reduced latitude).

Aside from rounding, this is the exact distance along a parallel of latitude; getting the distance along the shortest route will be more work, but those two distances are always within 0.6 meter of each other if the two points are one degree of longitude apart.

Longitudinal length equivalents at selected latitudes
Latitude Town Degree Minute Second ±0.0001°
60° Saint Petersburg 55.65 km 0.927 km 15.42m 5.56m
51° 28' 38" N Greenwich 69.29 km 1.155 km 19.24m 6.93m
45° Bordeaux 78.7 km 1.31 km 21.86m 7.87m
30° New Orleans 96.39 km 1.61 km 26.77m 9.63m
Quito 111.3 km 1.855 km 30.92m 11.13m

Datums often encountered

Main articles: geodetic system and datum (geodesy)

Latitude and longitude values can be based on several different geodetic systems or datums, the most common being WGS 84 used by all GPS equipment.[6] Other datums however are significant because they were chosen by a national cartographical organisation as the best method for representing their region, and these are the datums used on printed maps. Using the latitude and longitude found on a map may not give the same reference as on a GPS receiver. Coordinates from the mapping system can sometimes be changed into another datum using a simple translation. For example, to convert from ETRF89 (GPS) to the Irish Grid add 49 metres to the east, and subtract 23.4 metres from the north.[7] More generally one datum is changed into any other datum using a process called Helmert transformations. This involves converting the spherical coordinates into Cartesian coordinates and applying a seven parameter transformation (translation, three-dimensional rotation), and converting back.[1]

In popular GIS software, data projected in latitude/longitude is often represented as a 'Geographic Coordinate System'. For example, data in latitude/longitude if the datum is the North American Datum of 1983 is denoted by 'GCS North American 1983'.

Geostationary coordinates

Geostationary satellites (e.g., television satellites) are over the equator at a specific point on Earth, so their position related to Earth is expressed in longitude degrees only. Their latitude is always zero, that is, over the equator.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 A Guide to coordinate systems in Great Britain v1.7 Oct 2007 D00659 accessed 14.4.2008
  3. The French Institut Géographique National (IGN) still displays a latitude and longitude on its maps centred on a meridian that passes through Paris
  4. Haswell, Charles Haynes (1920). Mechanics' and Engineers' Pocket-book of Tables, Rules, and Formulas. Harper & Brothers. Retrieved 2007-04-09. 
  5. DMA Technical Report Geodesy for the Layman, The Defense Mapping Agency, 1983
  6. WGS 84 is the default datum used in most GPS equipment, but other datums can be selected.
  7. Making maps compatible with GPS Government of Ireland 1999. Accessed 15.4.2008
  • Portions of this article are from Jason Harris' "Astroinfo" which is distributed with KStars, a desktop planetarium for Linux/KDE. See [1]

External links

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