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77. The Problem of the Loxodrome.

Determine the length of the loxodrome joining two points on the earths surface.

A loxodrome is a "line" on the earths surface that makes the same angle with all the
meridians it cuts. It is a straight line on a Mercator map of the earth. As long as a ship
does not alter its course, it is sailing on a loxodrome.

0o

80o N

6 0o N
P2
4 0o N
20 o N

20 o S
40 o S

60 o S
loxo drom e
P1
80 o S

On a Mercator map, let 2 be the angle the loxodrome makes with a meridian.

The exaggerated latitude, according to No. 76, is o  ln tan45 (  2 where the unit
I

length is the radius of the sphere (earth). If we use nautical miles (nm), instead of earth
radii, the formula is o  10800
= ln tan45  2 nm. (A nautical mile is the length of 1 minute
( I

of latitude on a meridian or 1 minute of longitude on the equator, both about 1852m.) This
assumes a 1 : 1 map scale.

Let P i be points on the earth with longitudes 5 i and latitudes I i for i  1, 2, and let d be
the loxodromic distance to be determined. Without loss of generality I 2 u I 1 . The
corresponding exaggerated latititudes are

o1  10800 ln tan45 (  I 1 and o 2  10800 ln tan45 (  I 2


= 2 = 2

nautical miles. Let the distances of the map meridians from the zero meridian be " 1 and " 2
nm; thus " i is the number of minutes in 5 i .

On the one hand,

1
0o

80 oN

60 oN
L P2
S 40 oN
20 oN

20 oS
B loxodrom e
40 oS

60 oS

P1
80 oS

with S being the intersection of the map meridian through P 1 with the map latitude through
P 2 , P 1 S  B is the known exaggerated latitude difference o 1 " o 2 and P 2 S  L, the known
(undirected) distance between P 2 and S, i.e. " 2 " " 1 nm. 0P 2 P 1 S  2 is the azimuth of the
course. From dP 1 P 2 S we have

(1) tan 2  L
B
.

To determine the loxodromic distance d between P 1 and P 2 , partition the loxodrome into
n very small equal (nearly linear) segments of length /. Draw the meridian through one of
two adjacent partition points, and the circle of latitude through the other, creating a very
small (approximate) right triangle with hypotenuse /, and

m
e
r
i
d
i
a
n circ le o f la titu d e

* the latitude difference (in nm). Then b  / cos 2, and all pairs of adjacent points have the
same latitude difference (since / and 2 are the same for each triangle). The total latitude
difference between P 1 and P 2 is thus b  n*  n/ cos 2  d cos 2, and

(2) d  b sec 2.

2
From (1) and (2), it follows that

d  b L2  B2 .
B

Example. Find the loxodromic distance between

Valdivia, Chile 5 1  286 ( 34. 9 E, I 1  "39 ( 53. 1 and


U U

Yokohama, Japan 5 2  139 ( 39. 2 E, I 2  35 ( 26. 6 .


U U

Solution. Here

longitudinal diff L  60 ' 286  34. 9 " 60 ' 139 " 39. 2  8815. 7,
latitudinal diff b  60 ' 35  26. 6  60 ' 39  53. 1  4519. 7,
exag. latitude 2 o2 = ln tan45 
 10800 ( 35 26.6
2
(
 2276. 8,
U

exag. latitude 1 o1  10800


= ln tan45 ( " 39 ( 53.1 U
2
 "2613. 7,
exag. latitude diff B  2276. 8  2613. 7  4890. 5,
and d  4519.7
4890.5
8815. 7 2  4890. 5 2  9317 nm

By (1), 2  tan "1 L


B
 tan "1 8815.7
4890.5
 60 ( 58 51 . U UU

Note 1. The shortest distance k between P 1 and P 2 can be found by using the spherical
law of cosines (for sides):

b
a

A B
c

the cosine of a side of a spherical triangle equals the product of the cosines of the
other sides plus the product of the sines of those sides times the cosine of the
included angle. (A side is measured by the central angle that subtends it.) In the
figure above cos a  cos b cos c  sin a sin b cos A.

In this example, let N, V, Y be the North pole, Valdivia and Yokohama


respectively. Let k  VY. We have

3
NV  90 ( " I 1  129 ( 53. 1 , U

NY  90 ( " I 2  54 ( 33. 4 , U

0VNY  5 1 " 5 2  146 ( 55. 7 , and U

cos k  cos NV cos NY  sin NV sin NY cos 0VNY, or


cos k  cos 129 ( 53. 1 U cos 54 ( 33. 4 U  sin 129 ( 53. 1 U sin 54 ( 33. 4 U cos 146 ( 55. 7 U
 "0. 895717233, and
k  153 ( 36  9216  9216 nm.
U U

The shortest distance is 101 nm shorter than the loxodromic distance.

Note 2. The word "loxodrome" comes from the Dutchman Willebrord Snell (Snellius,
1581-1626).

Note 3. The Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes (1492-1577) was the first to
recognize that the loxodromic line connecting two points of the earths surface is not
the shortest connecting "line", and that a loxodrome continuously approaches the
pole without ever reaching it.

Note 4. In regard to this last comment, see Trigonometric Delights by Eli Maor, Princeton
U. Press, 2002, Chapter 13.