Meridian (geography)

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Meridians run between the North and South poles. Primemeridian.jpg
Meridians run between the North and South poles.

A (geographic) meridian (or line of longitude) is the half of an imaginary great circle on the Earth's surface, a coordinate line terminated by the North Pole and the South Pole, connecting points of equal longitude, as measured in angular degrees east or west of the Prime Meridian. [1] The position of a point along the meridian is given by that longitude and its latitude, measured in angular degrees north or south of the Equator. Each meridian is perpendicular to all circles of latitude. Meridians are half of a great circle on the Earth's surface. The length of a meridian on a modern ellipsoid model of the earth (WGS 84) has been estimated at 20,003.93 km (12,429.9 miles). [2]



The first prime meridian was set by Eratosthenes in 200 BCE. This prime meridian was used to provide measurement of the earth, but had many problems because of the lack of latitude measurement. [1] Many years later around the 19th century there were still concerns of the prime meridian. Multiple locations for the geographical meridian meant that there was inconsistency, because each country had their own guidelines for where the prime meridian was located .


The term meridian comes from the Latin meridies, meaning "midday"; the subsolar point passes through a given meridian at solar noon, midway between the times of sunrise and sunset on that meridian. [3] Likewise, the Sun crosses the celestial meridian at the same time. The same Latin stem gives rise to the terms a.m. (ante meridiem) and p.m. (post meridiem) used to disambiguate hours of the day when utilizing the 12-hour clock.

International Meridian Conference

Because of a growing international economy, there was a demand for a set international prime meridian to make it easier for worldwide traveling which would, in turn, enhance international trading across countries. As a result, a Conference was held in 1884, in Washington, D.C. Twenty-six countries were present at the International Meridian Conference to vote on an international prime meridian. Ultimately the outcome was as follows: there would only be a single meridian, the meridian was to cross and pass at Greenwich (which was the 0°), there would be two longitude direction up to 180° (east being plus and west being minus), there will be a universal day, and the day begins at the mean midnight of the initial meridian. [4]


The astronomic prime meridian at Greenwich, England. The geodetic prime meridian is actually 102.478 meters east of this point since the adoption of WGS84. Prime meridian.jpg
The astronomic prime meridian at Greenwich, England. The geodetic prime meridian is actually 102.478 meters east of this point since the adoption of WGS84.

Toward the ending of the 12th century there were two main locations that were acknowledged as the geographic location of the meridian, France and Britain. These two locations often conflicted and a settlement was reached only after there was an International Meridian Conference held, in which Greenwich was recognized as the 0° location. [5]

The meridian through Greenwich (inside Greenwich Park), England, called the Prime Meridian, was set at zero degrees of longitude, while other meridians were defined by the angle at the center of the earth between where it and the prime meridian cross the equator. As there are 360 degrees in a circle, the meridian on the opposite side of the earth from Greenwich, the antimeridian, forms the other half of a circle with the one through Greenwich, and is at 180° longitude near the International Date Line (with land mass and island deviations for boundary reasons). The meridians from West of Greenwich (0°) to the antimeridian (180°) define the Western Hemisphere and the meridians from East of Greenwich (0°) to the antimeridian (180°) define the Eastern Hemisphere. [6] [ unreliable source? ] Most maps show the lines of longitude.

The position of the prime meridian has changed a few times throughout history, mainly due to the transit observatory being built next door to the previous one (to maintain the service to shipping). Such changes had no significant practical effect. Historically, the average error in the determination of longitude was much larger than the change in position. The adoption of World Geodetic System 84" (WGS84) as the positioning system has moved the geodetic prime meridian 102.478 metres east of its last astronomic position (measured at Greenwich). [7] [8] The position of the current geodetic prime meridian is not identified at all by any kind of sign or marking (as the older astronomic position was) in Greenwich, but can be located using a GPS receiver.

Effect of Prime Meridian (Greenwich Time)

It was in the best interests of the nations to agree to one standard meridian to benefit their fast growing economy and production. The disorganized system they had before was not sufficient for their increasing mobility. The coach services in England had erratic timing before the GWT. U.S. and Canada were also improving their railroad system and needed a standard time as well. With a standard meridian, stage coach and trains were able to be more efficient. [9] The argument of which meridian is more scientific was set aside in order to find the most convenient for practical reasons. They were also able to agree that the universal day was going to be the mean solar day. They agreed that the days would begin at midnight and the universal day would not impact the use of local time. A report was submitted to the "Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada," dated 10 May 1894; on the "Unification of the Astronomical, Civil and Nautical Days"; which stated that:

civil day- begins at midnight and ends at midnight following,
astronomical day- begins at noon of civil day and continue until following noon, and
nautical day- concludes at noon of civil day, starting at preceding noon. [10]

Magnetic meridian

The magnetic meridian is an equivalent imaginary line connecting the magnetic south and north poles and can be taken as the horizontal component of magnetic force lines along the surface of the earth. [11] Therefore, a compass needle will be parallel to the magnetic meridian. However, a compass needle will not be steady in the magnetic meridian, because of the longitude from east to west being complete geodesic. [12] The angle between the magnetic and the true meridian is the magnetic declination, which is relevant for navigating with a compass. [13] Navigators were able to use the azimuth (the horizontal angle or direction of a compass bearing) [14] of the rising and setting Sun to measure the magnetic variation (difference between magnetic and true north). [15]

True meridian

The true meridian is the chord that goes from one pole to the other, passing through the observer, and is contrasted with the magnetic meridian, which goes through the magnetic poles and the observer. The true meridian can be found by careful astronomical observations, and the magnetic meridian is simply parallel to the compass needle. The arithmetic difference between the true and magnetic meridian is called the magnetic declination, which is important for the calibration of compasses. [16]

Henry D. Thoreau classified this true meridian versus the magnetic meridian in order to have a more qualitative, intuitive, and abstract function. He used the true meridian since his compass varied by a few degrees. There were some variations. When he noted the sight line for the True Meridian from his family's house to the depot, he could check the declination of his compass before and after surveying throughout the day. He noted this variation down. [17]

Meridian passage

The meridian passage is the moment when a celestial object passes the meridian of longitude of the observer. At this point, the celestial object is at its highest point. When the sun passes two times an altitude while rising and setting can be averaged to give the time of meridian passage. Navigators utilized the sun's declination and the sun's altitude at local meridian passage, in order to calculate their latitude with the formula. [18]

Latitude = (90° – noon altitude + declination)

The declination of major stars are their angles north and south from the celestial equator. [19] It is important to note that the meridian passage will not occur exactly at 12 hours because of the inclination of the earth. The meridian passage can occur within a few minutes of variation. [20]

Measurement of Earth rotation

Many of these instruments rely on the ability to measure the longitude and latitude of the earth. These instruments also were typically affected by local gravity, which paired well with existing technologies such as the magnetic meridian. [8]

See also

Related Research Articles

Latitude Geographic coordinate specifying north–south position

In geography, latitude is a geographic coordinate that specifies the north–south position of a point on the Earth's surface. Latitude is an angle which ranges from 0° at the Equator to 90° at the poles. Lines of constant latitude, or parallels, run east–west as circles parallel to the equator. Latitude is used together with longitude to specify the precise location of features on the surface of the Earth. On its own, the term latitude should be taken to be the geodetic latitude as defined below. Briefly, geodetic latitude at a point is the angle formed by the vector perpendicular to the ellipsoidal surface from that point, and the equatorial plane. Also defined are six auxiliary latitudes that are used in special applications.

Longitude geographic coordinate that specifies the east-west position of a point on the Earths surface

Longitude is a geographic coordinate that specifies the east–west position of a point on the Earth's surface, or the surface of a celestial body. It is an angular measurement, usually expressed in degrees and denoted by the Greek letter lambda (λ). Meridians connect points with the same longitude. The prime meridian, which passes near the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England, is defined as 0° longitude by convention. Positive longitudes are east of the prime meridian, and negative ones are west.

Right ascension Astronomical equivalent of longitude

Right ascension is the angular distance of a particular point measured eastward along the celestial equator from the Sun at the March equinox to the point in question above the earth. When paired with declination, these astronomical coordinates specify the location of a point on the celestial sphere in the equatorial coordinate system.

Geographic coordinate system Coordinate system to specify locations on Earth

A geographic coordinate system (GCS) is a coordinate system associated with positions on Earth. A GCS can give positions:

Sidereal time Timekeeping system

Sidereal time is a timekeeping system that astronomers use to locate celestial objects. Using sidereal time, it is possible to easily point a telescope to the proper coordinates in the night sky. In short, sidereal time is a "time scale that is based on Earth's rate of rotation measured relative to the fixed stars".

Hour angle

In astronomy and celestial navigation, the hour angle is one of the coordinates used in the equatorial coordinate system to give the direction of a point on the celestial sphere. The hour angle of a point is the angle between two planes: one containing Earth's axis and the zenith, and the other containing Earth's axis and the given point.

Prime meridian A line of longitude, at which longitude is defined to be 0°

A prime meridian is the meridian in a geographic coordinate system at which longitude is defined to be 0°. Together, a prime meridian and its anti-meridian form a great circle. This great circle divides a spheroid into two hemispheres. If one uses directions of East and West from a defined prime meridian, then they can be called the Eastern Hemisphere and the Western Hemisphere.

North One of the four cardinal directions

North is one of the four compass points or cardinal directions. It is the opposite of south and is perpendicular to east and west. North is a noun, adjective, or adverb indicating direction or geography.

Magnetic declination

Magnetic declination, or magnetic variation, is the angle on the horizontal plane between magnetic north and true north. This angle varies depending on position on the Earth's surface and changes over time.

Prime meridian (Greenwich) Meridian passing through Greenwich, London

The prime meridian is a geographical reference line that passes through the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in London, England. It was first established by Sir George Airy in 1851, and by 1884, over two-thirds of all ships and tonnage used it as the reference meridian on their charts and maps. In October of that year, at the behest of US President Chester A. Arthur, 41 delegates from 25 nations met in Washington, D.C., United States, for the International Meridian Conference. This conference selected the meridian passing through Greenwich as the official prime meridian due to its popularity. However, France abstained from the vote, and French maps continued to use the Paris meridian for several decades. In the 18th century, London lexicographer Malachy Postlethwayt published his African maps showing the "Meridian of London" intersecting the Equator a few degrees west of the later meridian and Accra, Ghana.

Longitude by chronometer is a method, in navigation, of determining longitude using a marine chronometer, which was developed by John Harrison during the first half of the eighteenth century. It is an astronomical method of calculating the longitude at which a position line, drawn from a sight by sextant of any celestial body, crosses the observer's assumed latitude. In order to calculate the position line, the time of the sight must be known so that the celestial position i.e. the Greenwich Hour Angle and Declination, of the observed celestial body is known. All that can be derived from a single sight is a single position line, which can be achieved at any time during daylight when both the sea horizon and the sun are visible. To achieve a fix, more than one celestial body and the sea horizon must be visible. This is usually only possible at dawn and dusk.

Ex-meridian is a celestial navigation method of calculating an observer’s position on Earth. The method gives the observer a position line on which the observer is situated. It is usually used when the Sun is obscured at noon, and as a result, a meridian altitude is not possible. The navigator measures the altitude of the Sun as close to noon as possible and then calculates where the position line lies.

Meridian altitude is a method of celestial navigation to calculate an observer's latitude. It notes the altitude angle of an astronomical object above the horizon at culmination.

The navigational triangle or PZX triangle is a spherical triangle used in astronavigation to determine the observer's position on the globe. It is composed of three reference points on the celestial sphere:

ECEF Earth-centered, Earth-fixed reference frame

ECEF, also known as ECR, is a geographic and Cartesian coordinate system and is sometimes known as a "conventional terrestrial" system. It represents positions as X, Y, and Z coordinates. The origin is defined as the center of mass of Earth, hence the term geocentric coordinates. The distance from a given point of interest to the center of Earth is called the geocentric distance, R = 0.5, which is a generalization of the geocentric radius, not restricted to points on the ellipsoidal surface.

Sun path Arc-like path that the Sun appears to follow across the sky

Sun path, sometimes also called day arc, refers to the daily and seasonal arc-like path that the Sun appears to follow across the sky as the Earth rotates and orbits the Sun. The Sun's path affects the length of daytime experienced and amount of daylight received along a certain latitude during a given season.

Equator Intersection of a spheres surface with the plane perpendicular to the spheres axis of rotation and midway between the poles

The Earth's equator is an imaginary planetary line that is about 40,075 km (24,901 mi) long in circumference. The equator divides the planet into the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere and is located at 0 degrees latitude, the halfway line between the North Pole and South Pole.

Astronomical rings Early astronomical instrument

Astronomical rings, also known as Gemma's rings, are an early astronomical instrument. The instrument consists of three rings, representing the celestial equator, declination, and the meridian.

Burts solar compass Surveying instrument that uses the suns direction instead of magnetism

Burt's solar compass or astronomical compass is a surveying instrument that makes use of the sun's direction instead of magnetism. William Austin Burt invented his solar compass in 1835. The solar compass works on the principle that the direction to the sun at a specified time can be calculated if the position of the observer on the surface of the Earth is known, to a similar precision. The direction can be described in terms of the angle of the sun relative to the axis of rotation of the planet.

A planetary coordinate system is a generalization of the geographic coordinate system and the geocentric coordinate system for planets other than Earth. Similar coordinate systems are defined for other solid celestial bodies, such as in the selenographic coordinates for the Moon. The coordinate systems for almost all of the solid bodies in the Solar System were established by Merton E. Davies of the Rand Corporation, including Mercury, Venus, Mars, the four Galilean moons of Jupiter, and Triton, the largest moon of Neptune.


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