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Latitude and Longitude

A key geographical question throughout the human experience has been, "Where am I?" In classical Greece and China, attempts were made to create logical grid systems of the world to answer this question. The ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy created a grid system and listed the coordinates for places throughout the known world in his book Geography. But it wasn't until the middle ages that the latitude and longitude system was developed and implemented. This system is written in degrees ().

When looking at a map, latitude lines run horizontally. Latitude lines are also known as parallels since they are parallel and are an equal distant from each other. Each degree of latitude is approximately 69 miles (111 km) apart; there is a variation due to the fact that the earth is not a perfect sphere but an oblate ellipsoid (slightly egg-shaped). To remember latitude, imagine them as the horizontal rungs of a ladder ("ladder-tude"). Degrees latitude are numbered from 0 to 90 north and south. Zero degrees is the equator, the imaginary line which divides our planet into the northern and southern hemispheres. 90 north is the North Pole and 90 south is the South Pole.

The vertical longitude lines are also known as meridians. They converge at the poles and are widest at the equator (about 69 miles or 111 km apart).

Today, Zero degrees longitude is located at Greenwich, England (0). The degrees continue 180 east and 180 west where they meet and form the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean. Greenwich, the site of the British Royal Greenwich Observatory, was established as the site of the Prime Meridian by an international conference in 1884- the height of the British Empire. At various other times Zero degrees longitude has been measured from Paris, Madrid, Rome, etc.

To precisely locate points on the earth's surface, degrees longitude and latitude have been divided into minutes (') and seconds ("). There are 60 minutes in each degree. Each minute is divided into 60 seconds. Seconds can be further divided into tenths, hundredths, or even thousandths. For example, the U.S. Capitol is located at 3853'23"N , 7700'27"W (38 degrees, 53 minutes, and 23 seconds north of the equator and 77 degrees, no minutes and 27 seconds west of the meridian passing through Greenwich, England).

Three of the most significant imaginary lines running across the surface of the earth are the equator, the Tropic of Cancer, and the Tropic of Capricorn. While the equator is the longest line of latitude on the earth (the line where the earth is widest in an east-west direction), the tropics are based on the sun's position in relation to the earth at two points of the year.

A world map, displaying the equator, the Tropic of Cancer, and Tropic of Capricorn

The equator is located at zero degrees latitude. The equator runs through Indonesia, Ecuador, northern Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Kenya, among other countries. It is 24,901.55 miles (40,075.16 kilometers) long. On the equator, the sun is directly overhead at noon on the two equinoxes - near March and September 21. The equator divides the planet into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

The Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn each lie at 23.5 degrees latitude. The Tropic of Cancer is located at 23.5 North of the equator and runs through Mexico, the Bahamas, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India, and southern China. The Tropic of Capricorn lies at 23.5 South of the equator and runs through Australia, Chile, southern Brazil (Brazil is the only country that passes through both the equator and a tropic), and northern South Africa.

The tropics are the two lines where the sun is directly overhead at noon on the two solstices - near June and December 21. The sun is directly overhead at noon on the Tropic of Cancer on June 21 (the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the beginning of winter in the Southern Hemisphere) and the sun is directly overhead at noon on the Tropic of Capricorn on December 21 (the beginning of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the beginning of summer in the Southern Hemisphere).

The area bounded by the Tropic of Cancer on the north and Tropic of Capricorn on the south is known as the "tropics." This area does not experience seasons because the sun is always high in the sky. Only higher latitudes, north of the Tropic of Cancer and south of the Tropic of Capricorn, experience significant seasonal variation in climate.

While the equator divides the earth into Northern and Southern Hemispheres, it is the Prime Meridian at zero degrees longitude and the line of longitude opposite the Prime Meridian (near the International Date Line) at 180 degrees longitude that divides the earth into the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. The Eastern Hemisphere consists of Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia while the Western Hemisphere includes North and South American. Some place the boundaries between the hemispheres at 20 West and 160 East so as to not run through Europe and Africa.