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ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY
ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

Prime Meridian

Prime Meridian

The prime meridian is the line of 0° longitude, the starting point for measuring distance both east and west around Earth. The prime meridian is arbitrary, meaning it could be chosen to be anywhere.

Grades

5 - 8

Subjects

Earth Science, Geography

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Morgan Stanley

The prime meridian is the line of 0° longitude, the starting point for measuring distance both east and west around Earth.

The prime meridian is arbitrary, meaning it could be chosen to be anywhere. Any line of longitude (a meridian) can serve as the 0° longitude line. However, there is an international agreement that the meridian that runs through Greenwich, England, is considered the official prime meridian.

Governments did not always agree that the Greenwich meridian was the prime meridian, making navigation over long distances very difficult. Different countries published maps and charts with longitude based on the meridian passing through their capital city. France published maps with 0° longitude running through Paris. Cartographers in China published maps with 0° longitude running through Beijing. Even different parts of the same country published materials based on local meridians.

Finally, at an international convention called by U.S. President Chester Arthur in 1884, representatives from 25 countries agreed to pick a single, standard meridian. They chose the meridian passing through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. The Greenwich Meridian became the international standard for the prime meridian.

UTC

The prime meridian also sets Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). UTC never changes for daylight savings or anything else. Just as the prime meridian is the standard for longitude, UTC is the standard for time. All countries and regions measure their time zones according to UTC.

There are 24 time zones in the world. If an event happens at 11:00 a.m. in Houston, Texas, United States, it would be reported at 12 p.m. in Orlando, Florida, United States; 4:00 p.m. in Morocco; 9:00 p.m. in Kolkata, India; and 6:00 a.m. in Honolulu, Hawai'i, United States. The event happened at 4:00 p.m. UTC.

The prime meridian also helps establish the International Date Line. Earth's longitude measures 360°, so the halfway point from the prime meridian is the 180° longitude line. The meridian at 180° longitude is commonly known as the International Date Line. As you pass the International Date Line, you either add a day (going west) or subtract a day (going east.)

Hemispheres

The prime meridian and the International Date Line create a circle that divides Earth into the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. This is similar to the way the Equator serves as the 0° latitude line and divides Earth into the northern and southern hemispheres.

The Eastern Hemisphere is east of the prime meridian and west of the International Date Line. Most of Earth's landmasses, including all of Asia and Australia, and most of Africa, are part of the Eastern Hemisphere.

The Western Hemisphere is west of the prime meridian and east of the International Date Line. The Americas, the western part of the British Isles (including Ireland and Wales), and the northwestern part of Africa are land masses in the Western Hemisphere.

Fast Fact

Laser Meridian
Today, the prime meridian is marked by a laser beam that shoots out northward from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.

Fast Fact

Planetary Prime Meridians
The Earth is not the only planet with a prime meridian. Scientists use craters or other geographic features to mark prime meridians on other planets and celestial bodies. The prime meridian of Mars runs through a crater named Airy-0. The prime meridian of the Earth's moon runs near a crater named Bruce.

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Writers
Hilary Costa
Erin Sprout
Santani Teng
Melissa McDaniel
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Kim Rutledge
Hilary Hall
Illustrators
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Editors
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
Producer
National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

August 11, 2022

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