Scientists Say: Latitude and Longitude | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Latitude and Longitude

One measures the distance from the equator, the other from the Prime Meridian
Mar 11, 2019 — 6:30 am EST
an illustration of the earth with latitude and longitude lines

This illustration of Earth is overlaid with a grid of latitude and longitude. The horizontal lines are latitude and the vertical lines are longitude.

Hellerick/Wikipedia/ (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Latitude  (noun, “LӐ-tih-tood”)

This is how scientists, sailors and others measure how far north or south they are from the equator. Lines of latitude form a series of horizontal stripes around the globe. The equator sits at 0°. The degrees increase as you move north or south from that line. The North Pole sits at 90° N, and the South Pole at 90° S. Any point on the surface of the Earth between 0 and 90° N is a measure of north latitude. If the point is between 0 and 90° S, it’s a measure of south latitude. One degree of latitude is about 111 kilometers (69 miles) in distance.

In a sentence

Winds can drive floating trash from lower latitudes toward the Arctic.

Longitude (noun, “LAWN-gih-tood”)

This is how scientists, geographers and sailors measure the east-west position of a location. Longitude is measured from the Prime Meridian. This is an imaginary line that runs from the North Pole to the South Pole through Greenwich, England. The Prime Meridian marks 0°. Measurements to the east of the Prime Meridian (toward Russia) run from 0° to 180° E. Measurements to the west of the Prime Meridian (toward Canada) measure from 0° to 180° W. (This is why we say that the United States lives in the “Western Hemisphere.”)

Latitude and longitude both start with “L” and end with “-tude,” so they sound similar. How can you remember the difference? Think of a ladder, leaning against Earth, balanced on the equator. The rungs going across are latitude, because lat stays flat! Those rungs link the long(itude) pieces together.

In a sentence

One nautical mile is 1/60th of a degree of longitude when measured at the equator.

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Power Words

(more about Power Words)

degree     (in geometry) A unit of measurement for angles. Each degree equals one three-hundred-and-sixtieth of the circumference of a circle.

equator     An imaginary line around Earth that divides Earth into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

latitude     The distance from the equator measured in degrees (up to 90). Low latitudes are closer to the equator; high latitudes are closer to the poles.

longitude     The distance (measured in angular degrees) from an imaginary line — called the prime meridian — that would run across Earth’s surface from the North Pole to the South Pole, along the way passing through Greenwich, England.

nautical mile     A unit of measurement for distances at sea, which equals 1.15 miles on land. A nautical mile is determined by the circumference of the Earth at the equator (1 nautical mile being 1 minute — or 1-60th of a degree of longitude — at the equator).

Western     (n. the West)  An adjective describing nations in Western Europe and North America (from Mexico northward). These nations tend to be fairly industrialized and to share generally similar lifestyles; levels of economic development (incomes); and attitudes toward work, education, social issues and government.