What is a Horizontal Datum Reference Frame?

horizontal datum
Image Courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Commerce

What is a Horizontal Datum?

A horizontal datum provides a reference frame for coordinates on the Earth.

A long time ago, surveyors put brass monuments in the Earth with precise X, Y locations. When these monuments were combined together using a technique called triangulation, this formed our horizontal datum.

Using a datum, all points on North America could be located with accuracy and be referenced to

But different types of horizontal datums exist. We lay out some of these datums below:

Pinpointing Positions with Survey Benchmarks

A horizontal (geometric) datum (or reference frame) forms a basis for computations of horizontal positions on the Earth.

It is a collection of specific points on the Earth’s surface that have been accurately identified according to their precise northerly or southerly location (latitude) and easterly or westerly location (longitude).

To create the network of horizontal positions, surveyors marked each of the positions they had identified with a brass, bronze, or aluminum disk known as a survey benchmark.

Brass Monument
Credit: United States Geological Survey (Brass Monument)

Because surveyors wanted to see one marked position from another, the benchmarks were usually placed on mountaintops or at high elevations. If they were on flat land, surveyors would have towers built to help locate them.

In order to create a horizontal datum, these monument locations were connected using mathematical techniques like triangulation. The result of triangulation from the unified network of survey monuments was North American Datum of 1927 (NAD 27) and later the more accurate NAD 83, which is still used today.

NAD 27 and NAD 83 provide a frame of reference for latitude and longitude locations on Earth.

Horizontal Control Network 1931
Horizontal Control Network 1931

Geographic Coordinate Systems

Real world objects are defined by coordinate systems. Various coordinate reference systems exist. In each coordinate system, geographic locations or features are described mathematically using coordinate values. A geographic coordinate system defines three-dimensional coordinates based on the Earth’s surface. It contains an angular unit of measure, prime meridian and datum (which contains the spheroid).

X-coordinates are between -180 and +180, which are called longitudes.
Longitude Coordinates
Longitude Coordinates
Y-values are between -90 and +90 degrees, which are lines of latitudes.
Latitude Coordinates
Latitude Coordinates

Longitudes: X-coordinates are between -180 and +180, which are called longitudes.
Latitudes: Y-values are between -90 and +90 degrees, which are called latitudes.

A datum describes the shape of the Earth. In mathematical terms, it defines the radius, major and minor axis and flattening for an ellipsoid. Datums are used in projections, monitoring the Earth’s crust, survey boundary delineation and more. All coordinates are referenced to a datum – including the one you are standing on right now.

How Do Horizontal Datums Relate to Ellipsoids?

Horizontal datums give us the capability to measure distances and directions across the surface of the earth. Most horizontal datums define a zero line at the equator from which we measure north and south (latitudes). There is also a zero line at the Greenwich Meridian from which we measure east and west (longitudes).

Prime Meridian

Together these lines provide a reference for latitude and longitude expressed in decimal degrees. These latitudes and longitude positions (Geographic Coordinate Systems) are based on a spheroid or ellipsoid surfaces that approximate the surface of the earth – a datum.

All coordinates are referenced to a datum. A datum describes the shape of the Earth in mathematical terms. A datum defines the radius, inverse flattening, semi-major axis and semi-minor axis for an ellipsoid.

Axis Spheroid

Here is the WGS84 datum:

Semi-major axis: 6,378,137.0m
Semi-minor axis: 6,356,752.3m
Inverse flattening: 294.978698214


Coordinates reference systems, geoids, latitudes and longitudes, projections, datums, ellipsoids…

Every GIS analyst needs a good base understanding of what they are and how it relates to location.

Because you can’t just put anything on a map without understanding its horizontal reference system.

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