Latitude or Longitude

vintage South Pole map
David shultz / Getty Images

Lines of longitude and latitude are part of the grid system that helps us navigate the Earth, but it can be difficult to remember which is which. There is an easy memory trick that anyone can use to keep the two geography terms straight.

Just Remember the Ladder 

Next time you are trying to remember the difference between degrees of latitude and longitude, just think of a ladder. The latitude lines are the rungs and the longitude lines are the "long" lines that hold those rungs together.

Latitude lines run east and west. Just like rungs on a ladder, they remain parallel as they run across the earth's surface. In this way, you can easily remember that latitude is just like "ladder"-tude.

In the same manner, you can remember that lines of longitude run north to south because they are "long." If you are looking up a ladder, the vertical lines appear to meet at the top. The same can be said for longitude lines, which converge as they stretch from the North Pole to the South Pole.

How to Remember Latitude and Longitude in Coordinates

Coordinates are often expressed as two sets of numbers. The first number is always the latitude and the second is the longitude. It easy to remember which is which if you think of the two coordinates in alphabetical terms: latitude comes before longitude in the dictionary.

For example, the Empire State Building lies at 40.748440°, -73.984559°. This means that it is approximately 40° north of the equator and 74° west of the prime meridian.

When reading coordinates, you will also come across negative and positive numbers.

  • The equator is 0° latitude. Points north of the equator are expressed with positive numbers and points to the south are expressed as negative numbers. There are 90 degrees in either direction.
  • The prime meridian is 0° longitude. Points to the east are expressed as positive numbers and points to the west are expressed as negative numbers. There are 180 degrees in either direction.

If positive and negative numbers are not used, the coordinates may include the letter for the direction instead. That same location for the Empire State Building may be formatted like this: N40° 44.9064', W073° 59.0735'.

But wait, where did that extra set of numbers come from? This last example of coordinates is commonly used when reading a GPS and the second numbers (44.9061' and 59.0735') indicate the minutes, which helps us pinpoint the exact latitude and longitude of a location.

How Does Time Factor Into Latitude and Longitude?

Let's take a look at latitude because it is the easier of the two examples. 

For each 'minute' that you travel north of the equator, you will travel 1/60th of a degree or about 1 mile. That is because there are approximately 69 miles between degrees of latitude (rounded down to 60 to make the examples easier).

In order to get from 40.748440 degrees to an exact 'minute' north of the equator, we need to express those minutes. That is where that second number comes into play. 

  • N40° 44.9064' can be translated as 40 degrees and 44.9064 minutes north of the equator

3 Common Formats of Coordinates

We have reviewed two formats that coordinates can be given in, but there are actually three. Let's review all of them using the Empire State Building example.

  • Degrees Alone (DDD.DDDDDD°): 40.748440° (positive number, so this indicates degrees north or east)
  • Degrees and Minutes (DDD° MM.MMMM'): N40° 44.9064' (direction with degrees and minutes)
  • Degrees, Minutes, and Seconds (DDD° MM.MMMM' SS.S"): N40° 44' 54.384" (direction with degrees, minutes, and seconds)
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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Matt. "Latitude or Longitude." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Rosenberg, Matt. (2023, April 5). Latitude or Longitude. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "Latitude or Longitude." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).