# Geographic coordinate systems

A *geographic coordinate system* uses a three-dimensional spherical surface to
determine locations on the earth. Any location on earth can be referenced by a point with longitude
and latitude coordinates.

The lines that run east and west each have a constant latitude
value and are called *parallels*. They are equidistant and parallel
to one another, and form concentric circles around the earth. The *equator* is
the largest circle and divides the earth in half. It is equal in distance
from each of the poles, and the value of this latitude line is zero.
Locations north of the equator have positive latitudes that range
from 0 to +90 degrees, while locations south of the equator have negative
latitudes that range from 0 to -90 degrees.

The lines that run north and south each have a constant longitude
value and are called *meridians*. They form circles of the same
size around the earth, and intersect at the poles. The* prime meridian* is
the line of longitude that defines the origin (zero degrees) for longitude
coordinates. One of the most commonly used prime meridian locations
is the line that passes through Greenwich, England. However, other
longitude lines, such as those that pass through Bern, Bogota, and
Paris, have also been used as the prime meridian. Locations east of
the prime meridian up to its antipodal meridian
(the continuation of the prime meridian on the other side of the globe)
have positive longitudes ranging from 0 to +180 degrees. Locations
west of the prime meridian have negative longitudes ranging from 0
to -180 degrees.

The latitude and longitude lines can cover the globe to form a
grid, called a *graticule*. The point of origin of the graticule
is (0,0), where the equator and the prime meridian intersect. The
equator is the only place on the graticule where the linear distance
corresponding to one degree latitude is approximately equal the distance
corresponding to one degree longitude. Because the longitude lines
converge at the poles, the distance between two meridians is different
at every parallel. Therefore, as you move closer to the poles, the
distance corresponding to one degree latitude will be much greater
than that corresponding to one degree longitude.

It is also difficult to determine the lengths of the latitude lines using the graticule. The latitude lines are concentric circles that become smaller near the poles. They form a single point at the poles where the meridians begin. At the equator, one degree of longitude is approximately 111.321 kilometers, while at 60 degrees of latitude, one degree of longitude is only 55.802 km (this approximation is based on the Clarke 1866 spheroid). Therefore, because there is no uniform length of degrees of latitude and longitude, the distance between points cannot be measured accurately by using angular units of measure.

A coordinate system can be defined by either a sphere or a spheroid
approximation of the earth's shape. Because the earth is not perfectly
round, a spheroid can help maintain accuracy for a map, depending
on the location on the earth. A *spheroid* is an ellipsoid, that
is based on an ellipse, whereas a sphere is based on a circle.

The shape of the ellipse is determined by two radii. The longer radius is called the semimajor axis, and the shorter radius is called the semiminor axis. An ellipsoid is a three-dimensional shape formed by rotating an ellipse around one of its axes.

A *datum* is a set of values that defines the position of
the spheroid relative to the center of the earth. The datum provides
a frame of reference for measuring locations and defines the origin
and orientation of latitude and longitude lines. Some datums are global
and intend to provide good average accuracy around the world. A local
datum aligns its spheroid to closely fit the earth's surface in a
particular area. Therefore, the coordinate system's measurements are
not be accurate if they are used with an area other than the one that
they were designed.

Whenever you change the datum, the geographic coordinate system is altered and the coordinate
values will change. For example, the coordinates in DMS of a control point in Redlands, California
using the North American Datum of 1983 (NAD 1983) are: -117 12 57.75961 34 01 43.77884

. The
coordinates of the same point on the North American Datum of 1927 (NAD 1927) are: -117 12
54.61539 34 01 43.72995

.