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A full GCS specification, such as those listed in the EPSG and ISO 19111 standards, also includes a choice of geodetic datum (including an Earth ellipsoid), as different datums will yield different latitude and longitude values for the same location.
The "latitude" (abbreviation: Lat., ϕ, or phi) of a point on Earth's surface is the angle between the equatorial plane and the straight line that passes through that point and through (or close to) the center of the Earth.[note 2] Lines joining points of the same latitude trace circles on the surface of Earth called parallels, as they are parallel to the Equator and to each other. 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.
The combination of these two components specifies the position of any location on the surface of Earth, without consideration of altitude or depth. The visual grid on a map formed by lines of latitude and longitude is known as a graticule. The origin/zero point of this system is located in the Gulf of Guinea about 625 km (390 mi) south of Tema, Ghana, a location often facetiously called Null Island.
In order to be unambiguous about the direction of "vertical" and the "horizontal" surface above which they are measuring, map-makers choose a reference ellipsoid with a given origin and orientation that best fits their need for the area to be mapped. They then choose the most appropriate mapping of the spherical coordinate system onto that ellipsoid, called a terrestrial reference system or geodetic datum.
Datums may be global, meaning that they represent the whole Earth, or they may be local, meaning that they represent an ellipsoid best-fit to only a portion of the Earth. Points on the Earth's surface move relative to each other due to continental plate motion, subsidence, and diurnal Earth tidal movement caused by the Moon and the Sun. This daily movement can be as much as a meter. 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 neighboring Scotland is rising by only 0.2 cm. These changes are insignificant if a local datum is used, but are statistically significant if a global datum is used.
Local datums chosen by a national cartographical organization include the North American Datum, the European ED50, and the British OSGB36. Given a location, the datum provides the latitude and longitude . In the United Kingdom there are three common latitude, longitude, and height systems in use. WGS84 differs at Greenwich from the one used on published maps OSGB36 by approximately 112m. The military system ED50, used by NATO, differs from about 120m to 180m.
The latitude and longitude on a map made against a local datum may not be the same as one obtained from a GPS receiver. Converting coordinates from one datum to another requires a datum transformation such as a Helmert transformation, although in certain situations a simple translation may be sufficient.
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'.
On the GRS80 or WGS84 spheroid at sea level at the Equator, one latitudinal second measures 30.715 m, one latitudinal minute is 1843 m and one latitudinal degree is 110.6 km. 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 m, a longitudinal minute is 1855 m and a longitudinal degree is 111.3 km. At 30° a longitudinal second is 26.76 m, at Greenwich (51°28′38″N) 19.22 m, and at 60° it is 15.42 m.
On the WGS84 spheroid, the length in meters of a degree of latitude at latitude ϕ (that is, the number of meters you would have to travel along a north–south line to move 1 degree in latitude, when at latitude ϕ), is about
The returned measure of meters per degree latitude varies continuously with latitude.
Similarly, the length in meters of a degree of longitude can be calculated as
(Those coefficients can be improved, but as they stand the distance they give is correct within a centimeter.)
The formulae both return units of meters per degree.
An alternative method to estimate the length of a longitudinal degree at latitude is to assume a spherical Earth (to get the width per minute and second, divide by 60 and 3600, respectively):
where Earth's equatorial radius equals 6,378,137 m and ; for the GRS80 and WGS84 spheroids, . ( is known as the reduced (or parametric) 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 m of each other if the two points are one degree of longitude apart.
Longitudinal length equivalents at selected latitudes
Like any series of multiple-digit numbers, latitude-longitude pairs can be challenging to communicate and remember. Therefore, alternative schemes have been developed for encoding GCS coordinates into alphanumeric strings or words:
^The pair had accurate absolute distances within the Mediterranean but underestimated the circumference of the Earth, causing their degree measurements to overstate its length west from Rhodes or Alexandria, respectively.
^Alternative versions of latitude and longitude include geocentric coordinates, which measure with respect to Earth's center; geodetic coordinates, which model Earth as an ellipsoid; and geographic coordinates, which measure with respect to a plumb line at the location for which coordinates are given.
^WGS 84 is the default datum used in most GPS equipment, but other datums can be selected.
^Chang, Kang-tsung (2016). Introduction to Geographic Information Systems (9th ed.). McGraw-Hill. p. 24. ISBN978-1-259-92964-9.