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Map Reading Learning Objectives
After completing this section you should be able to:

• Identify common topographical map symbols

• Read and interpret contour lines
• Orient a map based on local topography
• Identify and explain the basics of coordinate systems
• Identify and interpret longitude and latitude coordinates
• Identify and interpret UTM coordinates
• Identify and interpret Township and Range coordinates

Introduction to Topographical Maps

A navigation map represents our three-dimensional world on a flat piece of paper.

Aerial Photo Stowe VT

We might imagine if we were flying high in an airplane, we could simply take a picture of
what we see and that could be our map. Although aerial photos can be helpful, they do not
make particularly good navigation maps.

They contain too much information, making the important information difficult to find.
Photographic images can also be ambiguous. Is that a road, a river, a power line, a railroad
or what? A simplified drawing with consistent and intuitive symbols is far more useful.
Identify common topographical map symbols

Topographical Map Stowe VT

For the outdoor enthusiast, the most useful map is a topographical map. In addition to
indicating vegetation, waterways, landmarks, roads and trails, it also contains information
regarding elevation. Map providers offer detailed legends, though often not on the maps
themselves. Frankly, if you included them all, they might be bigger than our maps.
Thankfully, most symbols on a topographic map are fairly intuitive. You will not be
surprised that green areas have vegetation, where white areas are more barren. Blue
indicates water, such as lake, river or stream. Black double dotted lines are dirt roads, and
single dotted lines are trails. Here are just a few of the typical legends for topographical
Traditional 7.5 Minute Topographical Map

Upper Right Corner of a 7.5 Minute Map

The most commonly used outdoor topographical maps, provided by the USGS, are the 7.5
minute maps.
Note: a minute is one 60th of a degree, and not a measure of time. 7.5 Minute refers to the
fact the map covers an area 7 minutes and 30 seconds of longitude by 7 minutes and 30
seconds of latitude.
The title of the map is indicated in the upper right hand corner. Pictured is the Cedar MTN
Quadrangle. For each map, there are 8 adjoining maps, 1 on each side, and 1 on each
corner. The Tracy Quadrangle butts up with this map in the upper right corner.

The map scale appears on the

bottom center of the map, and is listed as 1:24,000, meaning that any measure of the map
would be expanded by 24,000 to match the actual environment. In other words, and inch of
the map equals 24,000 inches in the field. The scale also indicates the translation to miles,
feet, and kilometers for quick distance calculations using a ruler, a finger or piece of string.
The contour interval is indicated as 40 feet, meaning that the elevation change between any
adjacent brown lines is 40 feet (either up or down).

North indicated by the star

For consistency, the top off a topographical maps is oriented to true north (which is not the
same as magnetic north). In other words, unless clearly indicated otherwise, it is safe to
assume that the top of the map represents north, the right side east, the bottom south, and
the left west.

Note: MN is is magnetic north, and GN is Grid North. both of these will be explored later.

Read and interpret contour lines

Contour Lines Elevation Profile

Perhaps the least intuitive symbols on a topographical map (and the most important) are
the contour lines. These brown wavy non-crossing lines seem to dominate the entire map,
yet they do not represent anything physical like roads or trails. What they do represent is a
constant elevation. Every point along a brown contour line is at the same elevation. The
darker thicker brown lines are index contours. These lines typically have an elevation
number printed on them (such as 400, or 2800). The lighter thinner brown lines are known
as intermediate contours. They also represent an elevation level, but to avoid clutter, do
not have a printed value. In most cases, there are 4 intermediate contour lines between
each index lines. The difference in elevation between lines is indicated on the map as the
“contour interval”. A typical contour interval is 40 feet or 80 feet. If you can’t find the
interval listed, you can calculate it yourself by taking the difference between two parallel
index lines, and dividing by five. For example if, if you see 4 intermediate contour lines
between an index line marked 3000 and an index line marked 2800, you can figure the
interval as (3000-2800 = 200) / 5 = 40 feet.

To visualize what contour lines are telling you, imagine that you are walking along one line.
You would wind along following the curves of the terrain, but never go up and never go
down. If you do turn and cross a contour line, then you are changing elevation, either up or
down, by the contour interval. You can tell if it is up or down by comparing the values in the
closest index lines. The closer the contour lines are to each other, the stepper the slope.
Lines extremely close, or seemingly on top of each other, represent a sheer cliff

To practice your contour skills, see if you can match up the contour lines with the most
logical profile.


Answers: A-4, B-3, C-2, D-1

Contours for Ridges and Valleys

Contour "V" patterns

Ridges and valleys can be identified by a pattern of stacked “V” shapes. One common point
of confusion, however, is that the direction of elevation gain represented by the “V” changes
depending on if it is a ridge or a valley. For ridges, the “V” points down hill. For valley’s, the
“V” points up hill

Notice the example at Devils Pit. The red arrows are pointing with the “V”, which is down
the ridge line. Notice the blue arrows are also pointed with the “V”, but in this case it is
pointing up creeks not down. Water typically flows down valleys, not ridge lines, so water
flows “against” the “V”, not with it.

Which way would water flow?

When the Deadman Gulch has water, does it flow right-to-left or left-to-right?

Answer: Right-to-Left

Orient a map based on local topography

Orienting a map means turning the map until it is properly aligned with the surrounding

Un-oriented map
In other words, if the map was laid flat on the ground, true north would be the same
direction as the top of the map, east would be to the right of the map, south would be
towards the bottom, and west to the left of the map. Even without a compass, you can
orient a map by comparing it to known visible landmarks such as mountain peaks, rivers,
lakes or structures.
Oriented map
For example, lets assume you know you are standing near Sweet Springs, and you can see
the Rancho Los Mochos buildings off in the distance to your left. To orient the map, you
would rotate it so that the buildings were off to your left.

Now that the map is properly oriented to your surroundings, you can easily tell that North
is to your left, toward the buildings, and you are actually facing east.

Identify and explain the basics of map coordinate


What is a coordinate system?

A coordinate system is a method to use a number or combination of numbers to represent
a unique position.
For example, in one-dimension, a single
number could be used to identify each unique position. Imagine a line with a reference
point of zero(0). Positions to the right could be given successively increasing positive
values, and positions to the left could be given assigned negative numbers.

2D Grid
In a two-dimensional representations, two numbers are required: one for each
dimension. For example, in a classic Cartesian x,y coordinate system, perpendicular lines
are used to create a grid system. Each position is represented by a unique combination of x
and y values.

3D Grid
In a three-dimensional representation, a third value is added. This system is often refereed
to as an x,y,z system. Each position in space is represented by a unique combination of
three values.

Polar Coordinate System

Another coordinate system uses distance and angle from a reference point. For example,
two dimensions can be referenced by two numbers, one representing the distance from the
point, the other reference the angle (360 degrees).

Map making challenges

A map is a two dimensional representation of the surface of the earth, which is an odd
shaped sphere, with a very irregular surface of mountains, valleys and plains. If we simply
pound our earth ball until it is flat, something has got to give. We will be distorting some
dimension of the original globe. It might be shape, it might be distance, it might be area, but
something has got to give. The technique used to project this globe onto a flat surface
determines the compromise strategy. Some maps project as if the paper map is on a plane,
some project as if the map is on the surface of a cylinder, and others project as if the map is
on the surface of a cone. A topographical map will typically indicate the projection system
used. Many USGS maps uses a Lambert Conformal Conic projection, which does a nice job of
preserves angles and a good job with distances (both important for navigation).

Identify and interpret longitude and latitude

Longitude and Latitude
Perhaps the most common way of dividing up the earth is in degrees of Longitude and
Latitude. Longitude lines are the up and down lines that are used to measure east to west.
Latitude lines are horizontal lines, used to measure north to south. Longitude is
represented by the range of values from +180 (east) to -180 degrees (west), with zero(0)
representing the prime meridian (which passes through Greenwich England). Latitude is
represented by the range of values from +90 (north) to -90 (south) with zero(0) being the

To increase the precision, degrees are often further broken down into minutes and
seconds. A minute is a 60th of a degree, and a second is a 60th of a minute. San Francisco
can be represented as:

• Latitude: 37 degrees, 42 minutes, 44 seconds North

• Longitude: 122 degrees, 57 minutes, 03 seconds West
Be aware Latitude/Longitude and is also sometimes represented in a degrees decimal
form. For example San Francisco can also be represented in decimal form as:

• Latitude: 37.7123285
• Longitude -122.95081

Topographical Map Representation of Longitude and Latitude

Because of it’s popularity, topographical maps
almost always contain longitude and latitude values, expressed in degrees, minutes and
In this sample map, the right hand longitude is listed as 121 degree, 30 minutes, and 0
seconds (zero is assumed and not explicitly printed). The upper left corner (not shown)
lists 121 degrees, 37 minutes, and 30 seconds. If you are correctly doing the math, you will
find the difference between the right and left edges of the map is indeed 7 minutes and 30
seconds (or 7.5 minutes) . Similarly, in the upper right hand corner the latitude is listed as
37 degrees, 37 minutes, and 30 seconds. Can you guess what the lower right had corner
lists for latitude? If you guessed 37 degrees, 30 minutes, and 0 seconds, you are correct.
Again, 7.5 minutes of latitude between the bottom and top of the map.

Although very popular, there are some challenges to representing this curved system on a
two dimensional grid. Degrees north and south represent a relatively consistent distance
on the earths surface (110-111 kilometers per degree). Degrees east and west, however,
range from 111 kilometers per degree at the equator to zero (0) kilometers at the poles.
The potential inconsistencies in scale, makes it less useful for navigational calculations.

Identify and interpret UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator)

In order to achieve a more “square” grid for navigation, other systems have been created:
the most popular being UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator). In this system the earth is
divided up into 60 zones (each 6 degrees of Longitude wide)

According to the USGS Fact Sheet 077-01 August 200:

These zones are numbered consecutively beginning with Zone 1, between 180° and 174° west
longitude, and progressing eastward to Zone 60, between 174° and 180° east longitude. Thus,
the conterminous 48 States are covered by 10 zones, from Zone 10 on the west coast through
Zone 19 in New England.. In each zone, coordinates are measured north and east in meters.
(One meter equals 39.37 inches, or slightly more than 1 yard.) The northing values are
measured continuously from zero at the Equator, in a northerly direction. To avoid negative
numbers for locations south of the Equator, NIMA’s cartographers assigned the Equator an
arbitrary false northing value of 10,000,000 meters. A central meridian through the middle of
each 6° zone is assigned an easting value of 500,000 meters. Grid values to the west of this
central meridian are less than 500,000; to the east, more than 500,000
Because UTM represents an actual distance in meters, rather than an expression of degrees
representing a varying distances, it is much easier for us to apply this information in the
field. For example, it is much easier to understand needing to be 240 meters east, than say
needing to be 15 seconds east.

UTM Blue Tick Marks

UTM is also listed on the edge of the map, as a secondary coordinate system. This grid
system is in thousands of meters, and is indicated by small blue ticks. On this map you will
see the numbers 6-31, 6-23 across the top, and 41-65 and 41-65 down the side. Because the
ticks represent thousands of meters, they therefore represent a distance of 1 kilometer
between each mark.

Much like Latitude and Longitude, every location has a unique combination of two UTM
values. A typical example of UTM (San Francisco again) would be:

• Easting: 504335.56653118564
• Northing: 4173899.1894010305
This values are expressed in meters.

Identify and interpret Township and Range

Township and Range
Many topographical maps also include Township and Range coordinate information. These
appear on your topographical map as a brown square (approximately 1 mile by 1 mile)
with a brown number in the center of each square (ranging from 1-36).

The Township and Range grid is centered relative to a principle meridian (running north to
south) and baseline (running west to east). A township is 6 miles north to south. A range is
6 miles east to west. They are referenced in the margin of the topo map as something like
T4S for Township 4 South, and R3E for Range 3 East. Each 6 mile square intersection of
town and range is further divided into 36 square mile sections, whose numbers snake
consecutively from the upper right hand corner as 1, across left to 6, down a row as 7 and
back across right to 12, down a row to 13, and so on until it ends with 36 in the lower right
hand corner. To increase the precision, each square mile section is further divided into
quarters referred to as North West, North East, South East and South West. And for even
more fun, each section quarter is divided yet again in to quarters. As an example and area
may be referenced as the

north-west quarter of the south-east quarter of section 24 township 1 south

and range 2 west
It is covered here because brown squares and section numbers appears on many
topographical maps, and can be confusing if you don’t know what they are. Luckily, UTM
and Longitude and Latitude are really the only ones used by wilderness navigators, so you
might want to forget I even brought it up.
Latitude and Longitude Coordinates

Every single spot on the earth can be identified by a global latitude and longitude
coordinate system - whoa, big words, dude!

Well, let's slow down a bit. Latitude and longitude are just used to pinpoint your
location. Translating the earth to a map requires some sort of agreed-upon way to
describe each spot.

Take a look at this map:

Obviously, that is a map of the earth. You can find the continents and can probably
make a good try at pointing to where you live. But, how could you tell someone
else where you live so they could quickly find it on their own map? That is where a
coordinate system helps.

The Axis

Our coordinate system is going to be based on the spinning earth. The earth spins
around on its axis. One end of the axis is the North Pole and the other is the South
Pole. These are the two most important points on earth as far as directions and
navigating are concerned.
The most important number for figuring out locations is 360. There are 360
degrees in a circle and that is the shape of our world, no matter how you slice it.


If you could stand at the center of the earth, you could look out at the surface of
the earth all around you. With the North Pole directly above your head, if you
looked straight ahead in any direction, you would be looking at the equator. This
imaginary line is exactly halfway between the north and south poles and has a
latitude of 0 degrees because you are looking straight ahead at an angle of 0
degrees. If you look up a bit, maybe at an angle of 30 degrees, you have increased
your latitude to 30 degrees North. Continue to look up higher and higher until you
are looking straight above you at the north pole which is 90 degrees North.
Maybe this image will help:

The same thing happens if you look down under the equator. The degrees increase
until you are looking straight below you at the south pole which is at 90 degrees
south latitude.
Just like the equator is a line drawn around the earth at 0 degrees latitude, you can
draw a line around the earth at any latitude. Draw a lot of these lines and you will
see something like this:

90 degrees north and 90 degrees south are are actually just points, not circles.
Notice that each latitude is parallel to all others. The actual distance between
latitudes is always the same. But, since greater latitudes are closer to the poles,
circumferences get smaller as latitudes increase.

Drawing those latitude lines onto a map would look like this:

Longitude is the angle east or west around the earth, just like latitude is the angle
north and south. Longitude lines are called meridians.

For latitudes, we have two fixed points - the north and south poles - that we use as
end points. But, going around the earth, there is no start or stop, it just keeps
spinning and spinning. So, an arbitrary spot was chosen to be the Start point for
longitudes. This spot is the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, UK. The longitude line
that runs through it is called the Prime Meridian and is longitude zero degrees.
Notice that longitude lines are not parallel. The closer to the poles you get, the
shorter the distance between meridians until they all actually converge at the poles.

Drawing those longitude lines onto a map would look like this:

Latitude and Longitude Grid

Combining latitude and longitude results in a grid that covers the globe. Every point
can be defined by a north/south degree and an east/west degree.
For example, Seattle, Washington, USA is at latitude 47.6� North and longitude
122.33� West. From the center of the earth, look up 47.6� from the equator and
turn right (west) 122.33� from the Prime Meridian and you will be looking directly
at Seattle.

And, the complete grid on a map looks like:

Well, degrees are fine and good, but the earth is almost 25000 miles around so
dividing that into 360 pieces means each degree is about 69 miles wide around the
equator. That isn't very precise. To help with that, each degree is divided into 60
minutes and each minute is divided into 60 seconds. These used to be used all the
time, but now fractional degrees are more common.
For example, the location of the White House in Washington, DC is:

Decimal Degrees Deg:Min:Sec

Lat: 38.898648N 38� 53' 55.133" N
Lon: 77.037692W 77� 02' 15.691" W
Compute Decimal or Degrees/Minutes/Seconds:

0 0 0
Degrees: Minutes: Seconds:
Decimal number of degrees:
USGS topographic maps are called 7.5 minute maps because they span 7.5 minutes
of latitude and 7.5 minutes of longitude. The most common latitude and longitude
map is a 1:24,000 scale and the actual map size is about 22 inches by 27 inches.
By the way, it takes about 57,000 of these maps to cover the entire US and you
can buy any of them you want. Start your collection today! :-)

That's about all there is to latitude and longitude coordinates! Here's some tips to

• Latitude is always given before longitude (49� N 100� E)

• Latitudes are parallel, but longitudes are not
• Degrees West and South are sometimes referred to as negative degrees (-12� -
23� is the same as 12 S 23 W)
• A place's latitude effects its climate, but its longitude does not
• Key longitude lines are the Prime Meridian (0�) and the International Date Line
• Key latitude lines include the equator (0�), tropic of cancer (23� 26' N), tropic of
capricorn (23� 26' S), the arctic circle (66� 33' N), and the antarctic circle (66�
33' S)

Topographic Maps

Topographic maps are used by many different people. Geographers, geologists,

archaeologists, biologists, historians, ecologists and other researchers use topographic
maps routinely. Other users include the military, fish and game management workers,
utility companies, real estate developers and hikers. The maps most commonly used
for all these purposes are the United States Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.) 7.5 minute
series topographic maps. In this lab you will begin to learn how to read topographic
maps and how to use them to solve certain spatial problems.

Latitude and Longitude

You have learned how latitude and longitude are measured. The expression of these
angles on the surface of the earth form parallels (lines of equal latitude, running east -
west) and meridians (lines of equal longitude, running north - south) Together,
parallels and meridians form a locational grid over the surface of the earth. The top
and the bottom of your Cumberland map are both parallels of latitude. The sides of
your map are both meridians of longitude. Parallels and meridians meet at right
angles. Remember that the meridians converge at the poles. Thus, while the corners of
the map should be right angles the meridians are converging, so that the length of the
parallel on the north side of the map is a little shorter than that on the south side. This
is why these are called quadrangles rather than rectangles.

Look at the upper right corner of your map. You will see two numbers: 78° 45' and
39° 45'. How do you know which is the latitude and which is the longitude? Look at
the upper left corner of the map. The two numbers there are 78° 52' 30" and 39° 45'.
Compare these numbers to those in the upper right corner. Since the top of your map
is a parallel of latitude, the latitude angles will be the same in both upper corners.
Which two numbers are the same, and so what is the latitude of the top of the map?
It's the number that begins with the 39. What is wrong with saying that the latitude of
the north of the map is 39° 45'? Remember, that latitude must be followed by north or
south unless you are at the equator. The correct latitude of the northern boundary of
your map is 39° 45' North. As a space saving convenience, this information is omitted
from the map, but it must not be omitted from your interpretation.

You also could have determined which of the two numbers in the upper corner was a
latitude by just thinking about it for a minute. Obviously, 78° 45' is not the latitude of
Cumberland. Where would a latitude that high be located? Maryland is not THAT far
north! Similarly, by comparing the numbers found in each corner of your map you
should be able to answer the following questions:

A. What is the latitude of the bottom of the map? Answer

B. What is the longitude of the east (right) side of the map? Answer
C. What is the longitude of the west (left) side of the map? Answer

D. Subtract the latitude of the parallel forming the bottom of the map from the latitude
of the parallel forming the top. This will give you the size of the angle portrayed on
this map. Do the same for the longitudes of the west and east sides of the map. Why
do they call these maps "7.5 minutes series"? Answer
E. In reference to the previous question, if the angles of latitude and of longitude
shown on the map are both the same, why is the length of the sides and the bottom not
the same? Answer

In addition to the numbers given in the corners, the map contains other latitude and
longitude references. These are given in abbreviated form on the sides of the map.
They are a little hard to see because they are mixed up with lots of other little
numbers. Look closely for the two subdivision marks on the top, sides, and bottom of
the map. Find the 40' mark on the right side of your map. This is an abbreviated
latitude, missing the degrees. Recall the latitudes of the parallels forming the top (39°
45'N.) and the bottom (39° 37' 30"N.) of the map. The 40' indicates a latitude in
between the top and bottom, namely, 39° 40'N. You will notice there is another 40'
mark on the left side of the map. Draw a light pencil line straight between the two 40'
marks. Label this line as the parallel 39° 40'N. Find the 42' 30" marks on both the
right and left sides of the map. Draw and label this line as the parallel 39° 42' 30"N.

Longitudes are abbreviated on the map in the same way. The right side of the map has
a longitude of 78° 45' W. and the left side of the map of 78° 52' 30"W. All the other
longitudes on the map must lie in between those of the two sides. Find the 50' marks
on the top and bottom of the map. This is an abbreviation for 78° 50'W longitude.
Draw and label this meridian. Find the 47' 30" marks on the top and bottom of the
map. The meridian defined by these two marks has a longitude of 78° 47' 30" W.
Draw and label this meridian too. Note the little + that indicates the intersection of
these interior parallels and meridians.

In total, our map identifies four parallels of latitude and four meridians of longitude.
Together, these allow us to identify the position of any feature on the topographic
map. For example, let's find the latitude and longitude of Lover's Leap in the Narrows
of Wills Mountain. First, find the latitude by consulting the parallels you have drawn.
The words Lover's Leap are very close to the parallel 39° 40'N, so we will say that is
its approximate latitude. Now, find the longitude by consulting the meridians. Lover's
Leap lies between the meridians of 78° 45'W and 78° 47' 30"W. You will have to
estimate where the it falls between these two values.

Note that each of the lines you have drawn is separated by an angle of 2' 30". I expect
you to be able to estimate longitudes and latitudes to 30", one-fifth of the distance
between each line. By careful estimation, you can see that Lover's Leap is about four-
fifths of the way between 78° 45'W and 78° 47' 30"W. It is about 1/5 of the way short
of the left hand or greater coordinate. For this reason we will subtract 30" (one fifth of
the 2' 30" between each marked meridian) from the longitude is 78° 47' 30'W. We
now know that Lover's Leap on the surface of the earth at 39° 40'N; 78° 47'W,
coordinates that would allow anyone on earth to locate this feature.
Contact: Dr. M. H. Hill
JSU Distance Learning Homepage at Blackboard
Dr. M. H. Hill's homepage
Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama
Date Updated: October 15, 2013.

Topographic Maps (Continued)


Another universally agreed upon grid system is the Universal Transverse Mercator.
We will not concern ourselves here with the details of this grid system. It is based on
subdividing the areas of longitude into zones 6° wide and then measuring the distance
in meters from a designated starting point. If you examine the text at the bottom of the
left side of the Cumberland map, you will see that it identifies this quad as being in
UTM zone 17. The black grid superimposed on the map is the UTM grid. The black
multi-sized numbers and letter for the direction are the UTM coordinates. Comparing
the scale and the black grid, you should identify that each square is 1000 meters or
one kilometer. Since this grid is provided on this map, for identification and location
purposes, we will use this coordinate system. Locate the point 39° 40'N, 78° 50'W.
Looking at the left side of the map, you can see that 39° 40'N falls between the line
marked with a tiny 43 and larger 92 as a number and a tiny 43 and a larger 93. Further
examination reveals that on the right side of the map near South Cumberland is the
more detailed indication of small 43 large 90 and small 000mN. This means that this
line is 4,390,000 meters north of the "false origin" for this zone. For simplicity, most
of the grid markings on the map omit the 000mN designation. Within the square, we
can use the graphic scale to measure the distance. The east-west dimension of the
system works the same way. The UTM coordinate of the point identified by latitude
and longitude would be written 685,875 meters east, 4392800 m north, Northern
Hemisphere zone 17. It will suffice for us to just give the eastings and the northings
since we know we are in the Northern Hemisphere and, with just this one map to
reference, we can also dispense with repeating the zone designation.

Boris Vasilev M.S.
Professor of Geography
Paradise Valley Community College
Phoenix Arizona

Knowing how to read a USGS topographical map is essential to successfully

finding a ghost town. USGS topographical maps are useful because they
show the terrain and lay of the land as well as feature like roads, structures
and mines. As you read this, it would be helpful if you also had your own
topographical map to refer to.

The first thing to notice on a topographical map is the title. It is found in the
top right hand corner of the map:

The title for this particular map is, "Sunset Crater West Quadrangle." At the
corner, but in smaller print is another title called Strawberry Cheater. That is
the title of the next topographical map to the northeast of this one. You will
find similar titles on all the corners of a topographical map as well as
halfway between the corners. Use that information to find the other maps
that you may need.

Latitude, Longitude, and UTM'S

The next thing that you should notice
on a topographical map are the
numbers running all around the
outside of the map. These numbers
represent two grid systems that can be
used to find your exact location. The
first is called latitude and longitude.
The exact latitude and longitude is
given at each corner of that map and
at equally spaced intervals between
the corners. The second is called
UTM's. These are the smaller bold
numbers that run along the border of
the map.

Latitude & Longitude

Latitude and longitude is the most

common grid system used for
navigation. It will allow you to pinpoint
your location with a high degree of accuracy. Latitude is angular distance
measured north and south of the Equator. The Equator is 0 degrees. As you
go north of the equator the, latitude increases all the way up to 90 degrees at
the north pole. If you go south of the equator, the latitude increases all the
way up to 90 degrees at the south pole. In the northern hemisphere the
latitude is always given in degrees north and in the southern hemisphere it is
given in degrees south.

Longitude works the same way. It is angular distance measured east and
west of the Prime Meridian. The prime meridian is 0 degrees longitude. As
you go east from the prime meridian, the longitude increases to 180 degrees.
As you go west from the prime meridian longitude increases to 180 degrees.
The 180 degree meridian is also known as the international date line. In the
eastern hemisphere the longitude is given in degrees east and in the western
hemisphere it is given in degrees west.

How Accurate Can Latitude and Longitude Get?

At the equator, one degree of latitude or longitude represents approximately

70 statute miles. At higher latitudes the distance of one degree of longitude
decreases. Latitude stays the same because they are always equally spaces
apart. If you look on a globe you will see this to be the case. On the other
hand , if you look on a globe you will notice that the lines of longitude get
closer together as they approach the north and south poles.

Degrees are not accurate enough to find a precise location. At best, one
degree of latitude and longitude would define a 70 square mile area. To over
come this problem, 1 degree is divided into 60'(minutes). So if 1 degree
equals 70 miles and one degree can be divided into 60' then 1' equals 1.2
miles. Dividing 1 degree into 60' allows one to calculate their position with
much better accuracy. In some instances even more accuracy is needed. To
do this we can divide 1' into 60"(seconds). If 1' equals 1.2 miles and we can
divide it into 60", then 1" equals 0.02 miles. It it is worth taking a few
seconds to memorize the following numbers. It will help you to use latitude
and longitude more effectively:

1 degree = 70 miles
1' = 1.2 miles
1" = .02 miles

If you look at the picture above you will notice the latitude and longitude in
the lower right hand corner of the map. You would read it as 35 degrees 15
minutes north latitude and 111 degrees 30 minutes west longitude.

Below the title you will notice the words 7.5 minute map. This means that the
map covers an area of approximately 7.5 minutes of latitude and longitude.

UTM Coordinates

UTM Stands for Universal Transverse Mercator. It is another grid system that
can be used to find your position. It is most commonly used in the military
and for research as well as survey purposes. The UTM system divides the
surface of the earth up into a grid. Each grid is identified by a number across
the top called the zone number and a letter down the right hand side called
the zone designator. For example, Phoenix Arizona is in UTM grid 12 S.
Every spot within a zone can be defined by a coordinate system that uses
meters. Your vertical position is
defined in terms of meters north and
your horizontal position is given as
meters east. They are sometimes
referred to as your northing and
easting. In the following picture you
can see the northing and easting
coordinates on the boarder of the topo
map. They are the small bold black
numbers. Along the edge of the map
the first UTM shown is 3901000 meters
north. On a regular topo map the dash
above that number would be blue. As
you go up the right hand side of the
map, the next UTM is 3902000 meters
north. As you go up the right hand
side of the map every time you pass a
the small blue dash you have gone up
1000 meters (one meter = 3.281 feet).
The same applies with the UTM's
across the bottom of the map.

Map Scale
Map scale represents the relationship between distance on the map and the
corresponding distance on the ground. The scale on the topo map is found
at the bottom center of the map.

Scale is represented in two different ways on a topographical map. The first

is a ratio scale. The ratio scale on this map is 1:24,000. What it means is that
one inch on the map represents 24,00 inches on the ground. Below the ratio
scale is a graphic scale representing distance in miles, feet and meters. The
graphic scale can be used to make fast estimates of distances on the map.
The space between the 0 and the 1 mile mark on the scale is the distance
you must go on the map to travel one mile.

Contour Lines
One of the advantages to using a topographical map is that it shows the
three dimensional lay of the land. It does this by using contour lines. A
contour line is a line that connects points of equal elevation. On the topo
map they appear as the brown lines.
The contour line traces the outline of the terrain at evenly spaced elevations.
These are determined by the contour interval. The contour interval is found
below the map scale. For this map, the contour interval is 20 feet. That
means that every time you go up to another brown line the elevation
increases by 20 feet and every time you go down a brown line the elevation
decreases by 20 feet. In the lower left hand corner of the map there is a
mountain. Notice how the contour lines define the shape of the mountain.
The lines are closer together at the top of the mountain where it is steeper.
The spacing between the lines decreases as the slope of the mountain

Magnetic Declination
At the lower left hand corner of topographical maps
there is a symbol called the magnetic declination. The
symbol is used in conjunction with a compass for
navigational purposes. The center line with the star
above represents the direction of true geographic
north. The line coming of to the right represents the
direction of magnetic north, When using a compass,
the needle always points to magnetic north. The
symbol tells you that for the area the map covers, the magnetic compass
needle will always point 13.5 degrees to the east of true geographic north. To
the left of the true north line is the grid north line. This tells you how much
the UTM grid and zone lines are offset from true north.
Township & Range
The Township and Range system, sometimes called the Public Lands Survey
System, was developed to help parcel out western lands as the country
expanded. The system takes many western states and divides them up using
a base line and a principal meridian:

As you go to the east or west of the principal meridian, the range increases
in that direction. If you go north or south of the base line, the township
increases. This system divides the land up into townships and ranges that
are 36 square miles each. In the diagram above, the square with the X in it
would be defined as township 2 south (T.2S), range 3 east (R.3E). Each
township and range is then subdivided into 36 sections. Each section is one
mile square. Individual sections are then subdivided into half sections and
quarter sections and so on. On a topo map, you will notice a grid with red
lines and text crisscrossing the map. The lines represent the boarders of the
various sections in the township and range of that area. In the map below
you can see sections 23, 24, 26 and 25 of T.22N, R.7E.
Topographical Map Symbols
There are many other symbols on USGS topographical maps. Here are some
of the most common:

Why Do We Use Latitude and Longitude?

The Earth is divided into degrees of longitude and

latitude which helps us measure location and time using a single standard.
When used together, longitude and latitude define a specific location through geographical coordinates.
These coordinates are what the Global Position System or GPS uses to provide an accurate locational

Longitude and latitude lines measure the distance from the Earth's Equator or central axis - running east
to west - and the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, England - running north to south.

What Is the Equator?

The Equator is an imaginary line that runs around the center of the Earth from east to west. It is
perpindicular to the Prime Meridan, the 0 degree line running from north to south that passes through
Greenwich, England.

There are equal distances from the Equator to the north pole, and also from the Equator to the south
pole. The line uniformly divides the northern and southern hemispheres of the planet.

Because of how the sun is situated above the Equator - it is primarily overhead - locations close to the
Equator generally have high temperatures year round. In addition, they experience close to 12 hours of
sunlight a day. Then, during the Autumn and Spring Equinoxes the sun is exactly overhead which results
in 12-hour days and 12-hour nights.

What is Latitude?

The lines of latitude run east and west, parallel to the Equator. They are used to define the North-South
position of a location on the planet.

Major latitude lines include:

• Equator which is 0 degrees

• North Pole which is 90 degrees north
• South Pole which is 90 degrees south
• Arctic Circle is 66 degrees and 32' north
• Antarctic Circle is 66 degrees and 32' south
• Tropic of Cancer is 23 degrees and 30' north
• Tropic of Capricorn is 23 degrees and 30' south
What is Longitude?

The lines of longitude run north and south. They are used to define the East-West position of a location
on the planet. They run perpendicular to the Equator and latitude lines.

Half of a longitudinal circle is called a Meridian, which is where the term comes from in the name
Greenwich Meridian or Prime Meridian.

Contrary to latitude, there is no central longitude line. However, the Prime Meridian or Greenwich
Meridian is used as the primary reference point because it is set to 0 degrees longitude. The Prime
Meridian separates the east and west hemispheres of the Earth.

Because the Earth is essentially a spherical shape, it is considered to have 360 degrees. Therefore, the
planet has been divided into 360 longitudes as a form of measurement.

What are the uses of latitudes and longitudes?

7 Answers

Janet Marsden, former Assistant Professor Information Technology at State University of New York
Answered May 3, 2018 · Author has 65 answers and 57.1k answer views
Originally Answered: What is the function of latitude and longitude?

The function of latitude and longitude is to accurately locate a position on the surface of the
earth. Latitudes are circles around the earth that are parallel to the equator. Longitudes are
circles around the earth that intersect at the north and south poles. Longitude is measured
in degrees east or west with zero (or 360 - remember it’s a circle) degrees longitude
positioned at the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, England. Latitude is measured in degrees
north or south of the equator at zero degrees, making the poles 90 degrees from the equator.
The latitude and longitude coordinates form a grid on the earth’s surface that can be used to
determine the location of any point on the by the combination of the two values, as in x, y
coordinates on horizontal and vertical axes. The idea is more easily understood
graphically: Latitude & Longitude
A great book about the development of navigation based on latitude and longitude
is: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest
Scientific Problem of His Time.

8.6k views · View 6 Upvoters

Related QuestionsMore Answers Below

• How are latitudes and longitudes useful to us?

• What are the uses of longitude?
• What are the different latitudes and longitudes?
• How do I calculate time using longitudes and latitudes?
• What are the uses of latitude and longitude?

Karen Stelly
Answered Jul 25, 2018 · Author has 94 answers and 73k answer views
Originally Answered: What is the importance of longitude and latitude?

Lat and lon are very important to locating places on earth. Since it is a grid, just like a
Cartesian graph, we have one point with coordinates 0,0. From this point, we can locate any
other coordinates. There are two common ways to express lat and lon, but the key points are
that the equator is latitude 0, the poles are latitude 90. The 0 line for longitude is the Prime
Meridian, which runs through Greenwich, England, and the 180 degree line is the
international date line (roughly since we humans rearrange the time zones). Lat and lon
may be expressed in terms of N, S, E and W, in which north and south are relative to the
equator, and east and west are relative to the Prime Meridian. The coordinates may also be
shown with just a number, with negative numbers being western and southern coordinates,
while eastern and northern coordinates are positive numbers. Thus, every point on the
planet will have some lat and lon coordinate. But, besides just finding some location on
planet earth, these coordinates are also used by GPS, and will help people drive in
unfamiliar places, track movements of tectonic plates, and aim missile systems.

957 views · View 2 Upvoters

Vimala Srinivasan
Answered May 12, 2018
Originally Answered: What is latitude and longitude and its uses?

Latitude and longitude are imaginary

lines in the form of globe.

Both lines are used to locate the area.

Longitude lines are used to calculate

the time of the particular area.


Ankita Basu, B.Sc. Honours in Geography, University of Calcutta (2019)

Answered Jun 15, 2018 · Author has 59 answers and 20k answer views
Originally Answered: What is the concept of latitudes and longitudes?

Latitudes are those horizontal imaginary circular lines on the globe which are parrallel to
each other. In that sense latitudes also called parallels. Circumference of latitudes are
decreases from equator towards the poles. Equator,tropic of cancer and tropic of capricorn
are example of latitudes.

Longitudes are vertical imaginary lines. These are not parallel to each other. They meets
each other in the poles. Thus the space between two longitudes decreases from equator
towards the poles. They are also known as meridians. The prime meridian or Greenwich
Meridian is an longitude.

1.8k views · View 2 Upvoters

Related QuestionsMore Answers Below

• How do I calculate time using longitudes and latitudes?

• What are the uses of latitude and longitude?
• Why are there more longitudes than latitudes?
• What's the difference between longitude and latitude?
• What is the exact number of latitudes & longitudes?

Andrew Cary, MS Statistics & Biology, California State University, Hayward (1976)
Answered Apr 2, 2018 · Author has 563 answers and 224.7k answer views

Latitude and longitude are simply a commonly used coordinate system that is used to
identify a location on the imaginary spherical surface of the earth — when used with altitude
they provide a location actually on the actual surface of the earth.

There are other such coordinate systems in use, but altitude and longitude is the most

They are used to locate a place on the earth.

2.7k views · View 1 Upvoter

David Mason, former Systems Analyst (1980-2001)

Answered May 3, 2018 · Author has 2.2k answers and 314.4k answer views
Originally Answered: What is the function of latitude and longitude?

Every country has its (potentially) unique way to point to a location, but latitude/longitude
is universal and understood worldwide. Furthermore It can scale precision from very
general (whole degrees) to extremely precise. For example within about 1 km at two decimal
places, or within about 1 meter at five decimal places.

1.5k views · View 1 Upvoter

Siddhartha Bhowmick, Senior Consultant (2016-present)

Answered Aug 9, 2018

Latitude, lets you now how much radian you are elvated at on the surface now from the flat
plane, if the Earth is cut from middle into two equal halfs i.e. Norther and Southern
Hemispheres. They are always parallel to each other and keeps a distance of 110 Km apart
from each other for 1°

Longitudes, lets you keep an account of time difference in a certain pattern for places on the
earth’s surface region w.r.t.1 full rotation on its axis. They always keep a time difference of 4
minutes for adjacent 1° and congruences at the poles, hence helps in tracking earth’s
magnetic fields too.

Latitude and Longitude

Latitude and longitude are imaginary lines that help us label every place on the surface
of the earth. The most important line of latitude is the equator, which runs horizontally
around the fattest part of the earth. The most important longitude line is the Prime
Meridian which runs vertically and goes through Greenwich, England. Another important
longitude line is the international date line, which goes vertically through the middle of
the ocean opposite the Prime Meridian (it is like the other half of the Prime Meridian).

In the figure above the longitude lines are red and blue. Longitude lines look like
someone took the globe and cut it into slices like an orange. They are half circles which
intersect at the north and south poles.

Latitude lines look like circles wrapped around the globe that get smaller and smaller as
you go farther from the equator. Latitude lines are parallel and never touch each other.
Latitude and longitude are measured in degrees and also have a direction. Latitude
goes from 0 degrees (the equator) to 90 degrees (the north or south pole) and is either
north or south of the equator. Longitude goes from 0 degrees (the Prime Meridian) to
180 degrees (the international date line) and is east or west of the Prime Meridian. To
precisely locate a place, l using latitude and longitude, minutes and seconds are used
as well as degrees. Each degree has 60 minutes, and each minute has 60 seconds.

So when you see latitude and longitude coordinates, they look something like this: 47o
36' 25" N, 122o 19' 12" W

The N tells us to look north of the equator. The 47o 36' 25" before the N shows us how
far north of the equator we want to be; in this case 47 degrees, 36 minutes, and 25
seconds. Now that we've figured out what latitude we are on, we look at the second part
which is the longitude. Since there is a W, we go to the west of the Prime Meridian. The
numbers before the W tell us how far west to go, 122 degrees, 19 minutes, and 12
seconds. Now we can find the place this latitude and longitude represents by seeing
where the latitude and longitude lines we just found intersect. Using a map, can you find
the city that has this latitude and longitude?


Understanding Latitude and Longitude

Latitude and Longitude: Your Global Address

Every location on earth has a global address. Because the address is in
numbers, people can communicate about location no matter what language
they might speak. A global address is given as two numbers called
coordinates. The two numbers are a location's latitude number and its
longitude number ("Lat/Long").

Credit: Illinois State University

Grid Mapping
Using Lat/Long is different from using a street address. Instead of having a
specific street address, Lat/Long works with a numbered grid system, like
what you see when you look at graph paper. It has horizontal lines and
vertical lines that intersect. A location can be mapped or found on a grid
system simply by giving two numbers which are the location's horizontal and
vertical coordinates; or, to say it another way, the "intersection" where the
place is located).

• See Where in the World Lesson

Grid Mapping a Globe:

Latitude and Longitude lines are a grid map system too. But instead of being
straight lines on a flat surface, Lat/Long lines encircle the Earth, either as
horizontal circles or vertical half circles.

Horizontal mapping lines on Earth are lines of latitude. They are known as
"parallels" of latitude, because they run parallel to the equator. One simple
way to visualize this might be to think about having imaginary horizontal
"hula hoops" around the earth, with the biggest hoop around the equator,
and then progressively smaller ones stacked above and below it to reach the
North and South Poles. (Can you think of other ways to visualize the
parallels of Latitude?)

Think about having

imaginary horizontal "hula
hoops" around the earth,
with the biggest hoop
around the equator, and
then progressively smaller
ones stacked above and
below it to reach the North
and South Poles

Latitude lines are a numerical way to measure how far north or south of the
equator a place is located. The equator is the starting point for measuring
latitude--that's why it's marked as 0 degrees latitude. The number of
latitude degrees will be larger the further away from the equator the place is
located, all the way up to 90 degrees latitude at the poles. Latitude locations
are given as __ degrees North or __ degrees South.

Vertical mapping lines on Earth are lines of longitude, known as "meridians".
One simple way to visualize this might be to think about having hula hoops
cut in half, vertically positioned with one end at the North Pole and the other
at the South Pole.

Visualize hula hoops cut in

half, vertically positioned
with one end at the North
Pole and the other at the
South Pole.

Longitude lines are a numerical way to show/measure how far a location is

east or west of a universal vertical line called the Prime Meridian. This Prime
Meridian line runs vertically, north and south, right over the British Royal
Observatory in Greenwich England, from the North Pole to the South Pole.
As the vertical starting point for longitude, the Prime Meridian is numbered 0
degrees longitude.

To measure longitude east or west of the Prime Meridian, there are 180
vertical longitude lines east of the Prime Meridian and 180 vertical longitude
lines west of the Prime Meridian, so longitude locations are given as __
degrees east or __ degrees west. The 180 degree line is a single vertical line
called the International Date Line, and it is directly opposite of the Prime

Explain how latitude and longitude are used?

Earth Science Earth's Surface Location, Longitude, and Latitude

1 Answer

James J.
Oct 8, 2015
They are used to pinpoint any location on the Earth.
Lines of latitude run parallel to each other in an east/west direction, and are measure in
degrees starting at 0 degrees at the Equator and ending at 90 degrees at either North or
South Poles.
Longitude lines run north/south, converging at the poles. The zero degree Longitude runs
through Greenwich England and is called the Prime Meridian. The lines are then measured
in degrees moving east and west from 0 until you reach 180 degrees or the international
date line.
One degree can be divided into 60 minute and one minute into 60 seconds. The distance
from one minute of latitude to the next is 1 nautical mile. As longitude converge at the poles
the distance between minutes of longitude varies dependent on how far north/south you
Using these, every point on the Earth can be described using one latitude and one
longitude. And since modern GPS can measure down to decimals of seconds, you can use a
point of latitude and longitude and pinpoint yourself to within a meter of your EXACT spot
on the Earth.
Latitude and Longitude
By Guest, May 18, 2012

Latitude and longitude are geographic coordinates used to locate points on the
surface of the Earth.

Location on the Earth

The earth is effectively a sphere, so how do we describe where a point is on its

The most common way to locate points on the surface of the Earth is by standard, geographic
coordinates called latitude and longitude. These coordinates values are measured in degrees, and
represent angular distances calculated from the center of the Earth.

What is Latitude?

We can imagine the Earth as a sphere, with an axis around which it spins. The
ends of the axis are the North and South Poles. The Equator is a line around the earth, an equal distance
from both poles. The Equator is also the latitude line given the value of 0 degrees. This means it is the
starting point for measuring latitude. Latitude values indicate the angular distance between the Equator
and points north or south of it on the surface of the Earth.

A line connecting all the points with the same latitude value is called a line of
latitude. This term is usually used to refer to the lines that represent values in whole degrees. All lines of
latitude are parallel to the Equator, and they are sometimes also referred to as parallels. Parallels are
equally spaced. There are 90 degrees of latitude going north from the Equator, and the North Pole is at
90 degrees N. There are 90 degrees to the south of the Equator, and the South Pole is at 90 degrees S.
When the directional designators are omitted, northern latitudes are given positive values and southern
latitudes are given negative values.
What is Longitude?

Lines of longitude, called meridians, run perpendicular to lines of latitude, and

all pass through both poles. Each longitude line is part of a great circle. There is no obvious 0-degree
point for longitude, as there is for latitude. Throughout history many different starting points have been
used to measure longitude. By international agreement, the meridian line through Greenwich, England, is
currently given the value of 0 degrees of longitude; this meridian is referred to as the Prime Meridian.
Longitude values are indicate the angular distance between the Prime Meridian and points east or west of
it on the surface of the Earth.

The Earth is divided equally into 360 degrees of longitude. There are 180
degrees of longitude to the east of the Prime Meridian; when the directional designator is omitted these
longitudes are given positive values. There are also 180 degrees of longitude to the west of the Prime
Meridian; when the directional designator is omitted these longitudes are given negative values. The 180-
degree longitude line is opposite the Prime Meridian on the globe, and is the same going either east or

Commonly Used Terms

Equator — The line which encircles the Earth at an equal distance from the North and South Poles.
Geographic coordinates — Coordinate values given as latitude and longitude.
Great circle — A circle formed on the surface of a sphere by a plane that passes through the center of
the sphere. The Equator, each meridian, and each other full circumference of the Earth forms a great
circle. The arc of a great circle shows the shortest distance between points on the surface of the Earth.
Meridian — An imaginary arc on the Earth’s surface from the North Pole to the South Pole that
associates all locations running along it with a given longitude. The position of a point on the meridian is
given by its intersecting latitude. Each meridian is perpendicular to all circles of latitude at the intersection
Parallel — A circle or approximation of a circle on the surface of the Earth, parallel to the Equator and
connecting points of equal latitude.
Prime Meridian — The meridian of longitude 0 degrees, used as the origin for the measurement of
longitude. The meridian of Greenwich, England, is the internationally accepted prime meridian in most

Information courtesy of the National Atlas

What Are Longitudes and Latitudes?

Cartographers and geographers trace horizontal and vertical lines called latitudes and
longitudes across Earth's surface to locate points on the globe.

Longitudes and latitudes.

Together, they form the Earth’s geographical coordinates, and represent the angular distance of any location
from the center of the Earth. Both latitudes and longitudes are measured in degrees (°) and minutes (′).
Astronomical terms & definitions

Dividing Earth Into Hemispheres

The Earth is, almost, but not quite, a sphere that rotates around its axis. Scientists call this shape
a spheroid or ellipsoid. If we draw a line passing through the center of the Earth along its rotational axis, the
line would pass through the North and the South Pole.
The Equator is an imaginary line perpendicular to this axis. It is equidistant from the North and South Poles,
and divides the globe into the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere.
Most locations on the Equator experience consistently high temperatures throughout the year. They also
experience at least 12 hours of daylight every day during the year. On the Equinoxes – September and March –
the sun is directly overhead the Equator, resulting in almost exactly 12 hour days and 12 hour nights.
The Equator passes through 14 countries, including Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Indonesia, Ecuador, Colombia,
and Brazil.
Why do seasons occur?

Imaginary Circles
Often called parallels or circles of latitude, latitudes are imaginary circles parallel to the Equator. They are
named after the angle created by a line connecting the latitude and the center of the Earth, and the line
connecting the Equator and the center of the Earth.
Latitudes specify the north-south position of a location on the globe. Locations in the Northern Hemisphere are
identified by northern latitudes and are assigned a suffix of N for north. Southern Hemisphere locations, on the
other hand, are on southern latitudes and are assigned a suffix of S for south.
Find celestial objects in the sky

Notable Latitudes
The Equator represents 0° latitude, while the North and South Poles represent 90° North and 90° South
latitudes. In addition to the Equator, there are four other major latitudes that are usually found on maps and
globes. The positions of these latitudes are determined by the Earth's axial tilt.
▪ The Arctic Circle is the latitude 66° 34′ North. All locations falling North of this latitude are said to be in
the Arctic Circle.
▪ The Antarctic Circle on the other hand, is the latitude 66° 34′ south. Any locations falling south of this
latitude are said to be in the Antarctic Circle.
Places in both the Arctic and Antarctic circles experience extreme weather, and experience the Midnight
▪ The latitude 23° 26′ North is also known as the Tropic of Cancer. It marks the northern-most position on
the Earth, where the Sun is directly overhead at least once a year. This happens during the June Solstice,
when the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun.
▪ The Tropic of Capricorn is the latitude that lies at 23° 26′ South of the Equator. It is the southern-most
position on the globe, where the sun is directly overhead during the December Solstice.
Sometimes, latitudes north of the Equator are denoted by a positive sign. Latitudes south of the Equator are
given negative values. This eliminates the need to add whether the specified latitude is north or south of the

East-West Locations
Longitudes are geographical positioning markers that run from the geographical North Pole to the geographical
South Pole, intersecting the Equator. They meet at both Poles, and specify the east-west position of a location.
Longitudes are therefore imaginary circles that intersect the North and South Poles, and the Equator. Half of a
longitudinal circle is known as a Meridian. Meridians are perpendicular to every latitude.
Unlike, latitudes, there is no obvious central longitude. However, in order to measure the position of a location
based on the longitude, cartographers and geographers over the course of history have designated different
locations as the main longitudinal reference point. Today, the meridian line through Greenwich, England is
considered as the reference point for longitudes. This line is also known as the Prime Meridian.
The Prime Meridian is set as 0° longitude and it divides the Earth into the Eastern and the Western
Hemisphere. All the other longitudes are measured, and named after the angle they make with respect to the
center of the Earth from the intersection of the Meridian and the Equator.
Since a sphere has 360 degrees, the Earth is divided into 360 longitudes. The meridian opposite the Prime
Meridian (on the other side of the Earth) is the 180° longitude and is known as the anti meridian.
Modern timekeeping systems use longitudes as references to keep time. Time zones are defined by the Prime
Meridian and the longitudes.

An Easy Way to Remember

One easy way to remember the orientation of latitudes and longitudes is longitudes are long, and latitudes
are lateral.

Did You Know?

A Great Circle is any circle that is formed by a plane that passes through the center of the Earth. The Equator
and the circles created by the meridians form Great Circles. A straight line connecting two Great Circles is the
shortest distance between them. Because of this, they are important for the study of migration and other human
interactions and activities including shipping and airline routes.


Lines of latitude measure north-south position between the poles. The

equator is defined as 0 degrees, the North Pole is 90 degrees north, and the South Pole is 90
degrees south. Lines of latitude are all parallel to each other, thus they are often referred to as

The memory rhyme I use to help remember that lines of latitude denote north-south distance is:
"Tropical latitudes improve my attitude"
One degree of latitude is
60 nautical miles, 69 statute miles or 111 km.
One minute of latitude is
1 nautical mile, 1.15 statute miles, or 1.85 km.


Lines of longitude, or meridians, run between the North and South Poles. They measure east-west
position. The prime meridian is assigned the value of 0 degrees, and runs through Greenwich,
England. Meridians to the west of the prime meridian are measured in degrees west and likewise
those to the east of the prime meridian are measured to by their number of degrees east.

The memory rhyme I use to help remember that lines of longitude denote east-west distance is:
"Lines of LONGitude are all just as
LONG as one another."
With this saying in my mind, I picture all of the longitudinal meridians meeting at the poles, each
meridian the same length as the next.

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What Are the Five Major Lines of Latitude?


What Is a High Latitude?

Updated April 13, 2018

By Ronni Dee

The five major lines of latitude, more commonly referred to as the five major circles of
latitude, mark specific points on a globe or map of Earth. Four of the lines run parallel
to the equator and sit north or south above or below the equator. Visible on a globe or
map of the Earth, points on latitudes that cross over longitude lines mark specific
locations on the Earth.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

The five major latitude lines are the equator, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and
the Arctic and Antarctic Circles.

The Arctic Circle

The Arctic Circle is located at approximately 66.5 degrees north latitude, or 66.5
degrees north of the equator. This circle of latitude stretches through eight countries,
including the United States, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland
and Russia. The Arctic Circle marks the beginning area where the sun will not rise
during winter solstice and will not set during summer solstice.

The Antarctic Circle

The Antarctic Circle is located at approximately 66.5 degrees south latitude, or 66.5
degrees south of the equator. This line, or circle, of latitude marks the start of the
southern area known as the Antarctic. The circle consists of only one continent,
Antarctica. There are not any humans within the boundaries of the Antarctic Circle that
can be considered permanent residents of the area.



The Equator
Possibly the most well-known circle of latitude is the line sitting at zero degrees
latitude, the equator. The equator circles the globe with a circumference of nearly
25,000 miles, dividing the northern and the southern hemispheres. This line of latitude
is the starting point when referring to other points of the globe in terms of degrees
north and degrees south.

The Tropic of Cancer

The Tropic of Cancer is located at approximately 23.5 degrees north latitude, or 23.5
degrees north of the Equator. This line of latitude is the northern boundary of the area
referred to as the tropics. During the summer solstice the sun is located immediately
above the Tropic of Cancer. This line is the point farthest to the north at which the sun
is hanging directly upward at noon.

The Tropic of Capricorn

The Tropic of Capricorn is located at approximately 23.5 degrees south latitude, or
23.5 degrees south of the equator. This line of latitude is the southern boundary of the
area referred to as the tropics. This line marks the point farthest to the south at which
the sun is hanging directly upward at noon. During the summer solstice of the
Southern Hemisphere, the sun is located immediately above the Tropic of Capricorn.

Latitude and Longitude (Meridians and Parallels)

The Equator is an imaginary circle equidistant from the poles of the Earth. Circles parallel to
the Equator (lines running east and west) are parallels of latitude. They are used to measure
degrees of latitude north or south of the Equator. The angular distance from the Equator to the
pole is one-fourth of a circle or 90�. The 48 conterminous states of the United States are
located between 25� and 49� N. latitude. The arrows in figure 8-2 labeled “LATITUDE”
point to lines of latitude.
Meridians of longitude are
drawn from the North Pole to
the South Pole and are at right
angles to the Equator. The
“Prime Meridian” which passes
through Greenwich, England, is
used as the zero line from which
measurements are made in
degrees east and west to 180�.
The 48 conterminous states of
the United States are between
67� and 125� W.
Longitude. The arrows in figure
8-2 labeled “LONGITUDE”
point to lines of longitude.
Any specific geographical point
can thus be located by reference
to its longitude and latitude.
Washington, DC for example, is
approximately 39� N.
latitude, 77� W. longitude.
Chicago is approximately 42�
N. latitude, 88� W. longitude.

Time Zones

The meridians are also useful

for designating time zones. A
day is defined as the time
required for the Earth to make
one complete revolution of
360�. Since the day is divided
into 24 hours, the Earth revolves
at the rate of 15� an hour.
Noon is the time when the Sun
is directly above a meridian; to
the west of that meridian is
forenoon, to the east is
Figure 8-2.—Meridians and parallels—the basis of
measuring time, distance, and direction.

The standard practice is to establish a time zone for each 15� of longitude. This makes a
difference of exactly 1 hour between each zone. In the United States, there are four time
zones. The time zones are Eastern (75�), Central (90�), Mountain (105�), and Pacific
(120�). The dividing lines are somewhat irregular because communities near the boundaries
often find it more convenient to use time designations of neighboring communities or trade
centers. Figure 8-3 shows the time zones in the United States. When the Sun is directly above
the 90th meridian, it is noon Central Standard Time. At the same time, it will be 1 p.m.
Eastern Standard Time, 11 a.m. Mountain Standard Time, and 10 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.
When “daylight saving” time is in effect, generally between the last Sunday in April and the
last Sunday in October, the Sun is directly above the 75th meridian at noon, Central Daylight

These time zone differences must be taken into account during long flights eastward—
especially if the flight must be completed before dark. Remember, an hour is lost when flying
eastward from one time zone to another, or perhaps even when flying from the western edge
to the eastern edge of the same time zone. Determine the time of sunset at the destination by
consulting the flight service stations (AFSS/FSS) or National Weather Service and take this
into account when planning an eastbound flight.

In most aviation operations, time is

expressed in terms of the 24-hour
clock. Air traffic control
instructions, weather reports and
broadcasts, and estimated times of
arrival are all based on this system.
For example: 9 a.m. is expressed
as 0900; 1 p.m. is 1300; 10 p.m. is
2200 etc.
Because a pilot may cross several
time zones during a flight, a
standard time system has been
adopted. It is called Universal
Coordinated Time (UTC) and is
often referred to as Zulu time.
UTC is the time at the 0� line of
longitude which passes through
Greenwich, England. All of the
time zones around the world are
based on this reference. To convert
to this time, a pilot should do the
• Eastern Standard Time Add 5
• Central Standard Time Add 6
• Mountain Standard Time Add 7
• Pacific Standard Time Add 8
For daylight saving time, 1 hour
should be subtracted from the
calculated times.
Measurement of Direction

By using the meridians, direction from one

point to another can be measured in degrees,
in a clockwise direction from true north. To
indicate a course to be followed in flight,
draw a line on the chart from the point of
departure to the destination and measure the
angle which this line forms with a meridian.
Direction is expressed in degrees, as shown
by the compass rose in figure 8-4.

Because meridians converge toward the

poles, course measurement should be taken
at a meridian near the midpoint of the
course rather than at the point of departure.
The course measured on the chart is known
as the true course. This is the direction
measured by reference to a meridian or true
north. It is the direction of intended flight as
measured in degrees clockwise from true
north. As shown in figure 8-5, the direction
from A to B would be a true course of
065�, whereas the return trip (called the
reciprocal) would be a true course of
The true heading is the direction in
which the nose of the airplane points
during a flight when measured in
degrees clockwise from true north.
Usually, it is necessary to head the
airplane in a direction slightly
different from the true course to
offset the effect of wind.
Consequently, numerical value of
the true heading may not correspond
with that of the true course. This will
be discussed more fully in
subsequent sections in this chapter.
For the purpose of this discussion,
assume a no-wind condition exists
under which heading and course
would coincide. Thus, for a true
course of 065�, the true heading
would be 065�. To use the
compass accurately, however,
corrections must be made for
magnetic variation and compass


Variation is the angle between true north and magnetic north. It is expressed as east variation
or west variation depending upon whether magnetic north (MN) is to the east or west of true
north (TN), respectively.

The north magnetic pole is located

close to 71� N. latitude, 96�
W. longitude and is about 1,300
miles from the geographic or true
north pole, as indicated in figure 8-
6. If the Earth were uniformly
magnetized, the compass needle
would point toward the magnetic
pole, in which case the variation
between true north (as shown by
the geographical meridians) and
magnetic north (as shown by the
magnetic meridians) could be
measured at any intersection of the

Actually, the Earth is not

uniformly magnetized. In the
United States the needle usually
points in the general direction of
the magnetic pole, but it may vary
in certain geographical localities
by many degrees. Consequently,
the exact amount of variation at
thousands of selected locations in
the United States has been
carefully determined. The amount
and the direction of variation,
which change slightly from time to
time, are shown on most
aeronautical charts as broken
magenta lines, called isogonic
lines, which connects points of
equal magnetic variation. (The line
connecting points at which there is
no variation between true north
and magnetic north is the agonic
line.) An isogonic chart is shown
in figure 8-6. Minor bends and
turns in the isogonic and agonic
lines are caused by unusual
geological conditions affecting
magnetic forces in these areas.
Figure 8-6.—Isogonic chart. Magnetic meridians are
in black, geographic meridians and parallels are in
blue. Variation is the angle between a magnetic and
geographic meridian.
On the west coast of the
United States, the compass
needle points to the east of
true north; on the east coast,
the compass needle points to
the west of true north. Zero
degree variation exists on the
agonic line which runs
roughly through Lake
Michigan, the Appalachian
Mountains, and off the coast
of Florida, where magnetic
north and true north coincide.
[Compare figures 8-7 and 8-

Because courses are

measured in reference to
geographical meridians
which point toward true
north, and these courses are
maintained by reference to
the compass which points
along a magnetic meridian in
the general direction of
magnetic north, the true
direction must be converted
into magnetic direction for
the purpose of flight. This
conversion is made by adding
or subtracting the variation
which is indicated by the
nearest isogonic line on the
chart. The true heading, when
corrected for variation, is
known as magnetic heading.
Figure 8-7.—A typical isogonic chart. The black lines are
isogonic lines which connect geographic points with
identical magnetic variation.

If the variation is shown as “9� E,” this means that magnetic north is 9� east of true
north. If a true heading of 360� is to be flown, 9� must be subtracted from 360�, which
results in a magnetic heading of 351�. To fly east, a magnetic heading of 081� (090� -
9�) would be flown. To fly south, the magnetic heading would be 171� (180� - 9�).
To fly west, it would be 261� (270� - 9�). To fly a true heading of 060�, a magnetic
heading of 051� (060� - 9�) would be flown.

Remember, to convert true course or heading to magnetic course or heading, note the
variation shown by the nearest isogonic line. If variation is west, add; if east, subtract. One
method for remembering whether to add or subtract variation is the phrase “east is least
(subtract) and west is best (add).”


Determining the magnetic heading is an intermediate step necessary to obtain the correct
compass reading for the flight. To determine compass heading, a correction for deviation must
be made. Because of magnetic influences within the airplane such as
electrical circuits, radio, lights,
tools, engine, magnetized metal
parts, etc., the compass needle
is frequently deflected from its
normal reading. This deflection
is deviation. The deviation is
different for each airplane, and
it also may vary for different
headings in the same airplane.
For instance, if magnetism in
the engine attracts the north end
of the compass, there would be
no effect when the plane is on a
heading of magnetic north. On
easterly or westerly headings,
however, the compass
indications would be in error,
as shown in figure 8-9.
Magnetic attraction can come
from many other parts of the
airplane; the assumption of
attraction in the engine is
merely used for the purpose of
Figure 8-9.—Magnetized portions of the airplane cause
the compass to deviate from its normal indications.

Some adjustment of the compass, referred to as compensation, can be made to reduce this
error, but the remaining correction must be applied by the pilot.

Proper compensation of the compass is best performed by a competent technician. Since the
magnetic forces within the airplane change, because of landing shocks, vibration, mechanical
work, or changes in equipment, the pilot should occasionally have the deviation of the
compass checked. The procedure used to check the deviation (called “swinging the compass”)
is briefly outlined.
The airplane is placed on a magnetic compass rose, the engine started, and electrical devices
normally used (such as radio) are turned on. Tailwheel-type airplanes should be jacked up into
flying position. The airplane is aligned with magnetic north indicated on the compass rose and
the reading shown on the compass is recorded on a deviation card. The airplane is then aligned
at 30� intervals and each reading is recorded. If the airplane is to be flown at night, the
lights are turned on and any significant changes in the readings are noted. If so, additional
entries are made for use at night.

The accuracy of the compass can also be checked by comparing the compass reading with the
known runway headings.
On the compass card, the letters, N, E, S, and W, are used for north, east, south, and west. The
final zero is omitted from the degree markings so that figures will be larger and more easily

A deviation card, similar to figure 8-10, is mounted near the compass, showing the addition
or subtraction required to correct for deviation on various headings, usually at intervals of
30�. For intermediate readings, the pilot should be able to interpolate mentally with
sufficient accuracy. For example, if the pilot needed the correction for 195� and noted the
correction for 180� to be 0� and for 210� to be +2�, it could be assumed that the
correction for 195� would be +1�. The magnetic heading, when corrected for deviation,
is known as compass heading.

Figure 8-10.—Compass deviation

60 E 120 150
57 86 117 148

210 240 W 300 330
212 243 274 303 332

The following method is used by

many pilots to determine compass

After the true course (TC) is

measured, and wind correction
applied resulting in a true heading
(TH), the sequence TH � V =
MH � D = CH is followed to
arrive at compass heading. [Figure

Figure 8-11.—Relationship between true, magnetic,

and compass headings for a particular instance.

Accuracy is the tendency of your measurements to agree with the true values. Precision is the
degree to which your measurements pin down an actual value. The question is about an
interplay of accuracy and precision.
As a general principle, you don't need much more precision in recording your measurements
than there is accuracy built into them. Using too much precision can mislead people into
believing the accuracy is greater than it really is.

Generally, when you degrade precision--that is, use fewer decimal places--you can lose some
accuracy. But how much? It's good to know that the meter was originally defined (by the
French, around the time of their revolution when they were throwing out the old systems and
zealously replacing them by new ones) so that ten million of them would take you from the
equator to a pole. That's 90 degrees, so one degree of latitude covers about 10^7/90 = 111,111
meters. ("About," because the meter's length has changed a little bit in the meantime. But that
doesn't matter.) Furthermore, a degree of longitude (east-west) is about the same or less in
length than a degree of latitude, because the circles of latitude shrink down to the earth's axis
as we move from the equator towards either pole. Therefore, it's always safe to figure that the
sixth decimal place in one decimal degree has 111,111/10^6 = about 1/9 meter = about 4 inches
of precision.
Accordingly, if your accuracy needs are, say, give or take 10 meters, than 1/9 meter is nothing:
you lose essentially no accuracy by using six decimal places. If your accuracy need is sub-
centimeter, then you need at least seven and probably eight decimal places, but more will do
you little good.

Thirteen decimal places will pin down the location to 111,111/10^13 = about 1 angstrom,
around half the thickness of a small atom.

Using these ideas we can construct a table of what each digit in a decimal degree signifies:
• The sign tells us whether we are north or south, east or west on the globe.
• A nonzero hundreds digit tells us we're using longitude, not latitude!
• The tens digit gives a position to about 1,000 kilometers. It gives us useful information
about what continent or ocean we are on.
• The units digit (one decimal degree) gives a position up to 111 kilometers (60 nautical
miles, about 69 miles). It can tell us roughly what large state or country we are in.
• The first decimal place is worth up to 11.1 km: it can distinguish the position of one large
city from a neighboring large city.
• The second decimal place is worth up to 1.1 km: it can separate one village from the next.
• The third decimal place is worth up to 110 m: it can identify a large agricultural field or
institutional campus.
• The fourth decimal place is worth up to 11 m: it can identify a parcel of land. It is
comparable to the typical accuracy of an uncorrected GPS unit with no interference.
• The fifth decimal place is worth up to 1.1 m: it distinguish trees from each other.
Accuracy to this level with commercial GPS units can only be achieved with differential
• The sixth decimal place is worth up to 0.11 m: you can use this for laying out structures
in detail, for designing landscapes, building roads. It should be more than good enough for
tracking movements of glaciers and rivers. This can be achieved by taking painstaking
measures with GPS, such as differentially corrected GPS.
• The seventh decimal place is worth up to 11 mm: this is good for much surveying and is
near the limit of what GPS-based techniques can achieve.
• The eighth decimal place is worth up to 1.1 mm: this is good for charting motions of
tectonic plates and movements of volcanoes. Permanent, corrected, constantly-running
GPS base stations might be able to achieve this level of accuracy.
• The ninth decimal place is worth up to 110 microns: we are getting into the range of
microscopy. For almost any conceivable application with earth positions, this is overkill
and will be more precise than the accuracy of any surveying device.
• Ten or more decimal places indicates a computer or calculator was used and that no
attention was paid to the fact that the extra decimals are useless. Be careful, because
unless you are the one reading these numbers off the device, this can indicate low quality

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edited Aug 15 '17 at 13:07

answered Apr 18 '11 at 16:17


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William A. Huber