What are geographic coordinate systems?

A geographic coordinate system (GCS) uses a three-dimensional spherical surface to define locations on the earth. A GCS is often incorrectly called a datum, but a datum is only one part of a GCS. A GCS includes an angular unit of measure, a prime meridian, and a datum (based on a spheroid).

A point is referenced by its longitude and latitude values. Longitude and latitude are angles measured from the earth's center to a point on the earth's surface. The angles often are measured in degrees (or in grads). The following illustration shows the world as a globe with longitude and latitude values.

Illustration of a globe with longitude and latitude values

In the spherical system, horizontal lines, or east–west lines, are lines of equal latitude, or parallels. Vertical lines, or north–south lines, are lines of equal longitude, or meridians. These lines encompass the globe and form a gridded network called a graticule.

The line of latitude midway between the poles is called the equator. It defines the line of zero latitude. The line of zero longitude is called the prime meridian. For most geographic coordinate systems, the prime meridian is the longitude that passes through Greenwich, England. Other countries use longitude lines that pass through Bern, Bogota, and Paris as prime meridians. The origin of the graticule (0,0) is defined by where the equator and prime meridian intersect. The globe is then divided into four geographical quadrants that are based on compass bearings from the origin. North and south are above and below the equator, and west and east are to the left and right of the prime meridian.

Illustration of parallels and meridians that form a graticule
This illustration shows the parallels and meridians that form a graticule.

Latitude and longitude values are traditionally measured either in decimal degrees or in degrees, minutes, and seconds (DMS). Latitude values are measured relative to the equator and range from -90° at the South Pole to +90° at the North Pole. Longitude values are measured relative to the prime meridian. They range from -180° when traveling west to 180° when traveling east. If the prime meridian is at Greenwich, then Australia, which is south of the equator and east of Greenwich, has positive longitude values and negative latitude values.

It may be helpful to equate longitude values with X and latitude values with Y. Data defined on a geographic coordinate system is displayed as if a degree is a linear unit of measure. This method is basically the same as the Plate Carrée projection.

Learn more about the Plate Carrée projection

Although longitude and latitude can locate exact positions on the surface of the globe, they are not uniform units of measure. Only along the equator does the distance represented by one degree of longitude approximate the distance represented by one degree of latitude. This is because the equator is the only parallel as large as a meridian. (Circles with the same radius as the spherical earth are called great circles. The equator and all meridians are great circles.)

Above and below the equator, the circles defining the parallels of latitude get gradually smaller until they become a single point at the North and South Poles where the meridians converge. As the meridians converge toward the poles, the distance represented by one degree of longitude decreases to zero. On the Clarke 1866 spheroid, one degree of longitude at the equator equals 111.321 km, while at 60° latitude it is only 55.802 km. Because degrees of latitude and longitude don't have a standard length, you can’t measure distances or areas accurately or display the data easily on a flat map or computer screen.

Tables of the supported geographic coordinate systems, datums, and so on are available in ageographic_coordinate_systems.pdf file in the ArcGIS Documentation folder.

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