About coordinate systems

The features on a map reference the actual locations of the objects they represent in the real world. The positions of objects on the earth’s spherical surface are measured in degrees of latitude and longitude, also known as geographic coordinates. While latitude and longitude can locate exact positions on the surface of the earth, they are not uniform units of measure; only along the equator does the distance represented by one degree of longitude approximate the distance represented by one degree of latitude. To overcome measurement difficulties, data is often transformed from the three-dimensional geographic coordinate system to the two-dimensional planar surface in a projected coordinate system. Projected coordinate systems describe the distance from an origin (0,0) along two separate axes, a horizontal x-axis representing east–west, and a vertical y-axis representing north–south.

Because the earth is round and maps are flat, getting information from the curved surface to a flat one involves a mathematical formula called a map projection. A map projection transforms latitude and longitude to x,y coordinates in a projected coordinate system.


This process of flattening the earth will cause distortion in one or more of the following spatial properties: distance, area, shape, and direction. No projection can preserve all these properties and, as a result, all flat maps are distorted to some degree. Fortunately, you can choose from many different map projections. Each is distinguished by its suitability for representing a particular portion and amount of the earth’s surface and by its ability to preserve distance, area, shape, or direction. Some map projections minimize distortion in one property at the expense of another, while others strive to balance the overall distortion. As a mapmaker, you can decide which properties are most important and choose a projection that suits your needs.