Geographic Coordinates: Latitude, Longitude & Elevation

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  • 0:02 Geographic Coordinate System
  • 1:06 Latitude
  • 2:18 Longitude
  • 3:11 Coordinates & Quiz
  • 5:37 Elevation
  • 6:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high History and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in Education.

This lesson will seek to explain the geographic coordinate system. In doing so, it will explain latitude and longitude. It will also highlight the equator, the prime meridian, and the concept of elevation.

Geographic Coordinate System

As a kid in middle school, one of my favorite classes was geography. First, the teacher was really nice. Second, she gave us each our own little globes and these great plastic maps that - sort of like pop-up books - had mountain chains you could actually feel protruding from the surface. We used our little globes to learn longitude and latitude, and we used our cool plastic maps to learn about elevation. Quite conveniently, these three terms are exactly what our lesson is about today.

We'll kick things off with latitude and longitude. For starters, latitude and longitude are part of the geographic coordinate system, which very simply uses latitude and longitude to specify locations on the globe. Usually just referred to as the GCS, the geographic coordinate system is probably rather familiar to most of us.

With this in mind, let's break down the parts of the GCS. We'll start with latitude and longitude, the very concepts my cool teacher let us use our cool mini-globes to learn about.


Stated rather simply, latitude defines how far north or south a point is on the globe relative to the equator. As many of us are aware, the equator is an imaginary line drawn around the Earth equally distant from both poles, dividing the Earth into Northern and Southern hemispheres. To put it plainly, latitude lets you know how far north or south a point is on the globe.

Latitude is expressed in degrees, with the equator sitting at 0° latitude. As you move north, the degrees go from 0 to 90°. However, they go up to 90 as you move south as well. Therefore, in order to tell whether a point is north or south, you would say its latitude is so-and-so degrees North, as in north of the equator, or so-and-so degrees South, as in south of the equator.

Before we move onto longitude, here's one little tip: in order to keep latitude lines straight from longitude ones, I like to link the 'a' in latitude to the 'a' in the word 'across', helping me to remember that latitude lines go across the globe. Another great way to remember latitude is to link it to a ladder whose rungs run across it.


Now, onto longitude. Sort of opposite of latitude is its counterpart, longitude, which defines how far east or west a point is on the globe relative to the prime meridian. The prime meridian is, again, an imaginary line drawn around the Earth that separates it into Eastern and Western hemispheres. To state it simply, the prime meridian is to East and West what the equator is to North and South.

Interestingly, the prime meridian is believed to pass directly through Greenwich, England. Therefore, it is often also called the Greenwich meridian.

Like latitude, longitude is also expressed in degrees. However, as latitude only goes from 0 to 90° north or south, longitude goes from 0 to 180° east or west. Again, just like latitude, longitude will be expressed as so-and-so degrees east or so-and-so degrees west.

Coordinates & Quiz

Now, when you put latitude and longitude together, you get what we call a points coordinates, a set of numbers that specify a location on the globe. It's important to note that when giving coordinates, latitude is always given first and longitude is given last.

With that nailed down, let's take a little quiz. Unfortunately, I can't hand you cool little mini-globes, so we'll have to make do with a 2-dimensional map. Here's what we are going to do: I will give you a points coordinates, and then I'll give you a few seconds to find it on the map. I'll then highlight on the map, and you can see if you got it right.

2-dimensional map

Before we start the quiz, let's do one together. Here we go.

'Let's find the point whose coordinates is 30° S and 30° W.'

Okay, now taking what we've learned our first number denotes latitude. So, since it's 30° S, we are going to move south of the equator. Now, since it's 30° W, we are going to stay on our latitude line and move to the 30° longitude line, which will take us right here.

coordinate example

Great, now you try one. 'Find the point that is 60° N, 60° E.' If you placed your point right here, you got it!

coordinate example 2

Okay, one more. 'Find the coordinates 30° S, 90° W.' If you placed it here, you are right again. Well done!

coordinate example 3

Now, you may be thinking, 'That was pretty easy, but don't we need to be more specific since there seems to be pretty huge spaces between these lines?' If that's what you're thinking, you're correct!

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