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The earth's shape is an ellipsoid

As early as the ancient Greeks, people understood the earth to be a sphere. But as centuries passed, scientists and explorers
began to realize that the earth was not a perfect sphere.
In the mid 18th century, a French survey expedition took measurements at the equator in Peru and at the Arctic circle in
Lapland, and determined that the earth was bulging at the equator. The earth's shape is not a sphere, but an ellipsoid.
Just as a sphere is based on a circle, an ellipsoid is based on an ellipse. By rotating an ellipse about one of its axes, an
ellipsoid of rotation is created. This type of ellipsoid most closely approximates the earth's shape. To be more precise, the
earth rotates about its shortest axis, or minor axis, and is therefore described as an oblate ellipsoid.

The earth is not a perfect sphere but an oblate ellipsoid. If it rotated

about its major (longer) axis, it would be described as a prolate
Find out more about ellipses and ellipsoids

Find out more about ellipses and ellipsoids

How to make an ellipse
No one knows for sure when the ellipse was discovered, but about 2,350 years ago, the Ancient Greeks knew about the
ellipse as a member of the group of two-dimensional geometric figures called conic sections. An ellipse is created by using
the two dimensional plane to slice the three dimensional cone at an angle.

The ellipse is one of the many conic section

shapes, such as a line, circle, parabola, or

hyperbola. Click for animation
An ellipse is basically a curve with a simple formula. Create a straight line (X in the graphic below) connecting two fixed
points (A and B), called foci. Next, create another straight line (Y) that begins at one of the foci and ends at a new point (C)
that is not on the first line (X). Move the end point (C) while keeping the summed distance of the two lines (X+Y and Y) the
same until you return to the starting point and you will create an ellipse.

Moving point C while keeping the summed

length of lines X+Y and Y constant creates
an ellipse. Click for animation

Making an ellipsoid
Drawing a line through an ellipse's two foci and then another line perpendicular to and bisecting this line creates two axes, a
major axis and a minor axis. Rotating an ellipse about either axis creates a special type of ellipsoid called an ellipsoid of

Spinning an ellipse about its minor axis

creates an oblate ellipsoid while spinning
an ellipse about its major axis creates a
prolate ellipsoid.
Ellipsoids of rotation are defined using two axes but ellipsoids are actually mathematically defined using three axes. When you
rotate the ellipse about one of its axes, as in an ellipsoid of rotation, two of the axes are equal.

Not all ellipsoids are ellipsoids of

rotation. Mathematically an ellipsoid is
triaxial or defined using three axes
Ellipsoids are not usually measured with major and minor axes, but rather with semi-axes. A semi-axis is half of an axis.

When you examine the parameters for any

ellipsoid used to describe the earth, its semimajor and semi-minor axes are given.

The earth's shape is a spheroid

Although the earth's shape is technically an ellipsoid, its major and minor axes do not vary greatly. In fact, its shape is so
close to a sphere that it is often called a spheroid.

A spheroid is simply an ellipsoid that approximates a sphere. These

examples are two common world spheroids used today with their
values rounded to the nearest meter. For each spheroid, the
difference between its major axis and its minor axis is less than 0.34
The terms ellipsoid and spheroid are often used interchangeably and have caused confusion for many GIS users. Most map
projection authorities consider both terms equally correct. Because spheroid is a bit more descriptive than ellipsoid, and
because Esri software and documentation use spheroid, spheroid is the term that is used in this course.
Two common definitions for a spheroid are:
1. An ellipsoid that approximates the shape of a sphere
2. An ellipsoid created by rotating an ellipse about either:
its major axis (called a prolate ellipsoid), or
its minor axis (called an oblate ellipsoid)
The second definition is generally considered a more precise geometric definition because it doesn't involve any subjectivity.
Using this definition, the earth's shape is an oblate spheroid. However, this course will use the first definition, as most people
believe that it more accurately describes the earth's shape.
Defining a spheroid's ellipticity

Defining a spheroid's ellipticity

The degree of ellipticity, or flattening, of an ellipse, ellipsoid, or spheroid can be expressed as a fraction or decimal measuring
the difference in the length of the two axes. For example, if you assign two axes to a circle, and measure both of them, the
resulting difference will be 0. A circle's ellipticity is therefore 0. As an ellipse becomes more elongated its ellipticity increases.
Eventually, it approaches the shape of a line, which has an ellipticity of 1.

A circle has an ellipticity equal to 0 because the length of both axes is

the same. The example ellipse above has an ellipticity of .5 because
the major axis is twice as long as the minor axis. A line has an
ellipticity of 1 because it has length but no height.
Large elliptical values describe narrow ellipses or ellipsoids and small elliptical values represent almost circular ellipses or
spheroids. Earth's ellipticity is approximately 0.003353 because it bulges slightly at the equator and is flattened at the poles.
While this difference doesn't seem like much, it can greatly affect large-scale maps.

Why do we need different spheroids?

Now you know that the earth is a spheroid, which is another word for ellipsoid. As you may have suspected, however, it is
not a perfect spheroid. The earth's surface is not perfectly symmetrical, so the semi-major and semi-minor axes that fit one
geographical region do not necessarily fit another one.
Satellite technology has revealed several elliptical deviations. For one thing, the most southerly point on the minor axis (the
South Pole) is closer to the major axis (the equator) than is the most northerly point on the minor axis (the North Pole). In
addition, the earth's spheroid deviates slightly for different regions of the earth.
Many different spheroids are used throughout the world to account for these deviations. For example, the International 1924
and the Bessel 1841 spheroids are used in Europe while in North America the GRS80 spheroid is the most common.
Ignoring deviations and using the same spheroid for all locations on the earth could lead to errors of several meters, or in
extreme cases hundreds of meters, in measurements on a regional scale.
Because of improvements in technology, refinements in measurements, or for political reasons, you may see different
spheroids used for the same geographic area. For example the Clarke 1866 spheroid was the most commonly used spheroid
for North America. Today, the GRS80 spheroid is replacing Clarke 1866 in most geographic databases. However, just
because a spatial database covers North America, you cannot assume it uses the GRS80 spheroid. Many North American
databases have not yet been converted from Clarke 1866.

Spheroids created using satellite information, such as GRS80, are

starting to replace traditional ground-measured spheroids, such as
Clarke 1866. In this example, measurements for both spheroids have
been rounded to the nearest meter.
As technology improves, more spheroids of higher local accuracy will be developed. Remember that changing spheroids
changes the location values for the features you are mapping. Because of the complexity of changing spheroids, groundmeasured spheroids will remain in use for several years.
Find the spheroid for your country

Find the spheroid for your country

If necessary, enlarge this window then click the area containing your country.

World Spheroids




6378135 m

6356750.519915 m



6378137 m

6356752.31424518 m

Authalic sphere

Axis 6370997 m

When to use a sphere

Although a spheroid best represents the earth's shape, the earth is sometimes treated as a sphere to make mathematical
calculations easier.
You can use a variety of methods to define a sphere that approximates the earth's shape. For instance, you could base your
sphere on either the major axis or the minor axis of the earth (as defined by a particular spheroid). The most commonly
accepted method is to create a sphere that has the same surface area as the spheroid. Such a sphere is called an authalic

While the difference between the semi-major

and semi-minor axes must be considered in
regional applications, for most world maps
the difference can be ignored and the world
can be treated as a sphere. In fact, the
difference is so small that for this graphic it
would be undetectable.
If your mapping scales are smaller than 1:5,000,000 (small-scale maps), you can use an authalic sphere to define the earth's
shape. To give you some perspective, a 1:5,000,000 scale map of the conterminous United States would be approximately
122 cm (48 inches) wide. At this scale, the difference between a sphere and a spheroid is not significant. If your applications
use scales that are larger than this, you may need to choose a spheroid.

Exercise: Examine spheroids

In this exercise, you will examine the geography of Long Island, New York, using different spheroids.
Estimated completion time: 25 Minutes

Step 1: Download the data

To complete the exercise, you need to download the data. If you have already downloaded and installed the data, continue
to the next step.
Can't find the data you downloaded?
Once you have downloaded the data installation file, you need to install it on your computer. Browse to the installation file on
your computer, double-click it, and then follow the on-screen instructions.
By default, the data files will uncompress to a course folder in your C:\Student directory. The course folder will have the
same name as the data installation file.
If you installed the data to a location other than the default, browse to that location and look for the course folder. You can
also try searching for the course folder by clicking:
Start > Search > For Files or Folders (Windows XP), or
Start > Search programs and files (Windows 7 or Vista).

Step 2: Open a map document

Start ArcMap.
Tip: From your Start menu, choose All Programs > ArcGIS > ArcMap 10.
In the ArcMap Getting Started dialog box, under Existing maps, click "Browse for more."
Browse to the C:\Student\CoordBasics10_0 folder and open Spheroids.mxd.
View result

Step 2a: Open a map document.

Two of the five data layers in the map are currently displayed:
The World 30 layer consists of 30-degree latitude by 30-degree longitude lines using the WGS84 spheroid.
The Countries layer shows the generalized outlines of world countries using the WGS84 spheroid.
The three layers that are not currently displayed provide detailed outlines of New York using different spheroids:
The Clarke 1866 layer uses the Clarke 1866 spheroid.
The International 1924 layer uses the International 1924 spheroid.
The WGS 1984 layer uses the WGS84 spheroid.

Step 3: Zoom to the area of interest

Differences in spheroids are not noticeable at scales smaller than 1:5,000,000, so you will need to zoom to a specific area.
From the Bookmarks menu, click Long Island.
View result

Step 3a: Zoom to the area of interest.

The map zooms to the area around Long Island, New York.

Step 4: Display a more detailed layer

The feature shapes in the Countries layer are too generalized to let you see the differences between spheroids. You need to
use more detailed data.
In the table of contents, check the box next to the WGS 1984 layer to display it.

View result

Step 4a: Display a more detailed layer.

You see much more detail along the coastline and many smaller islands that were not visible before.

Step 5: Compare the spheroids

In this step, you will examine the differences between the spheroids. The Swipe tool in the Effects toolbar is one way to do
this: it allows you to "wipe" a layer's visibility on and off.
Turn on any deactivated layers in the table of contents to ensure that all layers are visible.
Add the Effects toolbar by selecting Customize > Toolbars > Effects.
On the Effects toolbar, select WGS 1984 as the layer and then click the Swipe Tool.

The mouse pointer becomes a half arrow when it is in the mapping area.
Move your mouse pointer above the Long Island area shown in the following graphic. Click and drag the mouse pointer
right-left or up-down to swipe in an East-West or North-South direction.

Can you see any difference in alignment between the layer?

Turn off the WGS 1984 layer and repeat the process with International 1924 layer.
Depending on the size of your ArcMap window, the current display scale is around 1:5,000,000. At this scale, you shouldn't
see any differences among the three spheroids.
Next, you will examine the layers at a smaller scale and look for differences in each spheroid's representation of the

Step 6: Zoom in closer

In this step, you will take a closer look at the detailed feature shapes around Long Island.
In the table of contents, click the check box next to Countries to turn off its display.
If necessary, turn on the WGS 1984, International 1924, and Clarke 1866 layers.
From the Bookmarks menu, click Detail 1.
View result

Step 6a: Zoom in closer.

Your map scale is now probably greater than 1:350,000 and you should just be able to see some differences between
features as represented by the three spheroids.
From Bookmarks menu, click Detail 2.
View result

Step 6b: Zoom in closer.

Your scale is now probably greater than 1:50,000. The differences between spheroids should be very visible. The Clarke
1866 and the WGS 1984 spheroids vary the most, with the International 1924 spheroid lying approximately halfway

between them.

Step 7: Measure the differences

From Bookmarks menu, click Detail 3.
On the Tools toolbar, click the Measure tool

The Measure window opens and you can move it as needed.

In the Measure window, click the Choose Units button

, then choose Distance > Meters.

View result

Step 7a: Measure the differences.

Now all your measurements will be in meters.
The map display shows a small island above a horizontal strip of land.
Move your mouse pointer over the northernmost point on the small island in the Clarke 1866 layer (labeled "1") and click
once. Then, move you mouse pointer (which looks like a measure tool) over the northernmost point on the small island in the
WGS 1984 layer (labeled "2") and double-click.

The distance is reported in the Measure window.

View result

Step 7b: Measure the differences.

From Bookmarks menu, click Detail 2.
Click the Pan tool

Your mouse pointer changes to a hand.

Hover the mouse pointer over the top of the map display. Click your mouse button and hold as you drag to the bottom of the
display, then release it.
The graphic area refreshes.
Repeat the Pan operation until a land mass comes into view.
View result

Step 7c: Measure the differences.

This is the coastline of Long Island.

Use the Pan and Measure tools to examine the coastline of Long Island.
Are the differences uniform throughout the layer?
The differences are uniform along the Long Island coastline. If this layer extended to other parts of the globe, you would see
increasing differences between the Clarke 1866 spheroid and the WGS 1984 spheroid.
You have finished this exercise.
From the File menu, choose Exit. Click No when prompted to save your changes.

Establishing location
Now that you have a better understanding of the earth's shape, you are ready to examine the way we locate places on it.
Early mapmakers recognized the need for a system that could locate features on the earth's surface. From this need, a system
of imaginary intersecting lines was createdtoday we call that system latitude and longitude.

The system of latitude and longitude is used to locate

features on the earth's surface.

Creating the graticule

Just over 2,100 years ago, a Greek astronomer and geographer named Hipparchus refined and formalized the system. His
system is the same one we know today as latitude and longitude. The system of latitude and longitude, also called parallels
and meridians, is based on 360 degrees. Each degree is divided into 60 minutes and each minute into 60 seconds. The 360degree Babylonian system for dividing a circle or sphere, including the heavens, was already in use by the ancient Greeks.
Hipparchus had the foresight to apply the system to the earth's surface.
Latitude lines are parallel, run east and west around the earth's surface, and measure distances north and south of the
Longitude lines run north and south around the earth's surface, intersect at the poles, and measure distances east and west of
the prime meridian.
The network of intersecting lines of latitude and longitude is called the graticule. It is imaginary on the earth, of course, but is
drawn on globes and maps for reference.

The graticule of latitude and longitude lines is an angular

measurement system. All features on the earth's surface are
located using measurements that are relative to the center of
the earth. Latitude lines are parallel to each other while
longitude lines converge at the poles.

Locating features from north to south

Although the graticule was developed more than two thousand years ago, not everyone agreed where the starting point for
the system should bethat is, where was zero?
Where to begin measuring latitude was the first problem to be tackled. The ancient Greeks are known to have used at least
two different latitude lines as their origin. One line passed through Rhodes and another passed through Alexandria. Two
different origins is manageable if you know how to convert from one system to the other, but one origin is a lot better.
Latitude lines, or parallels, are actually the edges of a series of parallel planes intersecting the earth's axis at right angles and
decreasing in size as they near the poles. Because only one of the parallels is a great circle, a circle that divides the earth into
two equal halves, scholars reasoned using that parallel as the starting point for latitude seemed logical. This line is called the
equator. The resulting southern hemisphere and northern hemisphere surfaces are theoretically equal, but because the earth
isn't a perfect sphere or spheroid, the hemispheres are in fact a little different.
Find out more about great circles

Find out more about great circles

A great circle is any circle that defines the point where an imaginary plane intersects the earth and divides the earth into equal
halves or hemispheres. To create a great circle, you spin a sphere's diameter in any direction and trace its path. The resulting
circle divides the sphere into two equal halves. Opposite meridians, when combined, create a great circle, as does the
equator. All other parallels are called small circles because they fail to divide the earth into equal hemispheres.

Rotating two connecting meridians or the equator in any direction

creates a great circle. When the circle does not intersect the equator

at a right angle, its orientation is called oblique.

An arc, or section, of a great circle represents the shortest distance between any two points on the earth. This makes great
circles very useful in plotting courses for airplanes, missiles, or, in some situations, ships.
Degrees of latitude are measured from 0 to 90 north and 0 to 90 south from the equator. The north pole and the south
pole are then 90 north and 90 south respectively.

Because latitude lines are parallel, every degree of latitude is

theoretically equal. Since the earth is not a perfect sphere,
however, the degrees vary slightly: 110.572 kilometers (68.708
miles) at the equator and 111.69 kilometers (69.403 miles) at the
The invention of the compass (which points north), combined with the fact that the most influential countries were located in
the northern hemisphere, meant that north was placed at the top of most maps and globes.

Locating features from east to west

Determining the starting point, or prime meridian, for longitude is not an easy task. Longitude lines, or meridians, converge at
the poles so every meridian is half of a circle, specifically, half of a great circle.
Since each circle is the same size, choosing one meridian over another is completely arbitrary. To give just a few examples,
the Spanish have used a meridian passing through Madrid, the French a meridian passing through Paris, and the Austrians a
meridian passing through the island of Ferro in the Canary Islands. Around the time of the American Revolution, colonial
maps used either London or Philadelphia as the starting point. Later, the United States adopted Washington, D.C. as the
prime meridian. Finally, in 1884, an International Meridian Conference was held in Washington, D.C., and the Observatory
of Greenwich in Great Britain was adopted as the official prime meridian.

The distance for a degree of longitude varies. A degree of

longitude at the equator is 111.317 kilometers (69.171 miles) and
gradually decreases toward the poles, which have a value of zero.
Degrees of longitude are measured from 0 to 180 east and 0 to 180 west from the prime meridian. The 180 meridian is
often called the International Dateline, but the dateline actually deviates from the meridian and is more a political or
chronological construct than a locational one.
Not every nation has adopted the Greenwich Meridian as its prime meridian. Today, several prime meridians are used by a
variety of countries. When examining the coordinates for a set of features, especially from different data sources, you must be
sure they are referenced from a common prime meridian.
View other prime meridians

View other prime meridians

Prime meridian longitudes listed below are based on the Greenwich Prime Meridian established at the International Meridian
Conference in 1884. When evaluating maps or geospatial data from sources associated with or located in these cities or
countries be sure to check the prime meridian.
Athens, Greece
23 42' 58.815" E
Bern, Switzerland 7 26' 22.5" E
Bogota, Colombia 74 04' 51.3" W

Brussels, Belgium

4 22' 04.71" E

Ferro (El Hierro)

17 40' 00" W

Jakarta, Indonesia 106 48' 27.79" E

Lisbon, Portugal
9 07' 54.862" W
Madrid, Spain
Paris, France

3 41' 16.58" W
2 20' 14.025" E

Rome, Italy

12 27' 08.4" E

Stockholm, Sweden 18 03' 29.8" E

This table lists prime meridians for various cities across the globe.

Decimal degrees
Decimal degrees (DD) are similar to degrees/minutes/seconds (DMS) except that minutes and seconds are expressed as
decimal values. Coordinates in the Southern and Western hemispheres are given negative values, so 106W becomes -106.
Decimal degrees are generally used to store digital coordinate information because they make digital storage of coordinates
easier and computations faster.
How to convert from DMS to DD:
This example shows the location for Moscow in DMS and DD; the coordinate is 3736'30" (DMS).
1. Divide each value by the number of minutes or seconds in a degree:
36 minutes = .60 degrees (36/60)
30 seconds = .00833 degrees (30/3600)
2. Add up the degrees to get the answer:
37 + .60 + .00833 = 37.60833 DD
Converting coordinates in Windows 7

Converting coordinates in Windows 7

You can convert DD to DMS and DMS to DD using your computers calculator.
In the Scientific view, the Inv button toggles between a normal and inverse set of functions, including dms and deg.
Click an item below.
Normal mode
Inverse mode

When converting decimal degrees to dms, the calculator needs to be in normal mode so that the dms button is visible.
When converting dms into decimal degrees, the calculator need to be in inverse mode so that the deg button is visible.
1) Try it out:
Click the Start button and choose Programs > Accessories > Calculator.
When the calculator opens, from the View menu, choose Scientific.
2) Convert DD to DMS:
Enter the decimal degree coordinates and click the dms button. The result is returned in degrees, minutes, and seconds
(although it is formatted as a decimal).
For example, enter 51.487911, the latitude of London, England. Click dms. The result is 51.29164796. This means
5129'16" N.
Try 104.177116, the longitude of Singapore. The result is 104.10376176. This means 10410'38" E.
Negative numbers work fine. Enter 37.852959 and click the +/- button. That gives 37.852959, the latitude of
Melbourne, Australia. Click dms. The result is -37.51106524. This means 3751'11" S.
3) Convert DMS to DD:
Enter the degrees, minutes, seconds coordinates (formatted as a decimal), click the Inv button and click the deg
button. The result is given in decimal degrees.
For example, enter 45.3228, the latitude of Montreal, Canada (4532'28"). Click Inv and then deg. The result is
45.541111, the value in DD.
Try 18.0503, the longitude of Stockholm, Sweden (185'3"). Click Inv and then deg. The result is 18.084167, the
value in DD.
What is the decimal degrees equivalent to
3216'52.8636" N and 10644'53.4192" W?
32.281351, -106.748172
Esri products allow feature coordinates to be stored as degrees/minutes/seconds in text files or database tables. However,
decimal degrees must be used for all feature coordinates in geographic datasets (shapefiles, coverages, geodatabases, and so

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