Longitude is the measurement east or west of the prime meridian.


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Geography, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Physical Geography

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Longitude is the measurement east or west of the prime meridian. Longitude is measured by imaginary lines that run around Earth vertically (up and down) and meet at the North and South Poles. These lines are known as meridians. Each meridian measures one arc degree of longitude. The distance around Earth measures 360 degrees.

The meridian that runs through Greenwich, England, is internationally accepted as the line of 0 degrees longitude, or prime meridian. The antimeridian is halfway around the world, at 180 degrees. It is the basis for the International Date Line.

Half of the world, the Eastern Hemisphere, is measured in degrees east of the prime meridian. The other half, the Western Hemisphere, in degrees west of the prime meridian.

Degrees of longitude are divided into 60 minutes. Each minute of longitude can be further divided into 60 seconds. For example, the longitude of Paris, France, is 2° 29' E (2 degrees, 29 minutes east). The longitude for Brasilia, Brazil, is 47° 55' W (47 degrees, 55 minutes west).

A degree of longitude is about 111 kilometers (69 miles) at its widest. The widest areas of longitude are near the Equator, where Earth bulges out. Because of Earth's curvature, the actual distance of a degrees, minutes, and seconds of longitude depends on its distance from the Equator. The greater the distance, the shorter the length between meridians. All meridians meet at the North and South Poles.

Longitude is related to latitude, the measurement of distance north or south of the Equator. Lines of latitude are called parallels. Maps are often marked with parallels and meridians, creating a grid. The point in the grid where parallels and meridians intersect is called a coordinate. Coordinates can be used to locate any point on Earth.

Knowing the exact coordinates of a site (degrees, minutes, and seconds of longitude and latitude) is valuable for military, engineering, and rescue operations. Coordinates can give military leaders the location of weapons or enemy troops. Coordinates help engineers plan the best spot for a building, bridge, well, or other structure. Coordinates help airplane pilots land planes or drop aid packages in specific locations.

Fast Fact

Into the Great Wide Open
It was not until the 18th century that people were able to correctly determine their longitude, even though they had been able to figure out latitude for some time. Not being able to reckon longitude was dangerous for sailors. Without an exact location, they could easily run out of food or water on a long expedition into uncharted territory.

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Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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