What Is Absolute Location? Definition and Examples

Mapping coordinates on a map
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Absolute location refers to a specific, fixed point on the Earth's surface as expressed by a coordinate system such as latitude and longitude. It is more precise than relative location, which describes where a place is located using other places nearby. A relative location can be as general as "west of the highway" or as specific as "100 North First Street."

Absolute location is typically described using the longitude and latitude system. Geographically speaking, latitude represents points on the Earth's surface from north to south, ranging from 0 degrees at the equator to (+/-)90 degrees at the North and South Poles. Meanwhile, longitude represents points on the Earth's surface from east to west, ranging from 0 to 360 degrees.

Absolute location is important for geolocation services such as Google Maps and Uber. Recently, app developers have even called for an added dimension to absolute location, giving height to help specify between different floors of buildings at the same longitude and latitude.

Key Takeaways: Absolute Location

• Absolute location is described using a coordinate system (typically latitude and longitude). It refers to a specific point on the Earth's surface.

• Relative location is described using objects, landmarks, or places that are near a certain place. For example, "Oklahoma is north of Texas" is an example of a relative location.

• Absolute location can be found using geolocation software such as GPS.

Absolute vs. Relative Location

From knowing where exactly to meet up with a friend to locating buried treasure, absolute location is important for locating oneself in the world at any given time; however, sometimes a person only needs to use relative location to describe a particular place to another person.

Relative location describes a place based on its proximity to other locations, landmarks, or geographic contexts. Philadelphia, for example, is located approximately 86 miles southeast of New York City, and can be referred to in terms of distance, travel time, or cost. Unlike absolute location, relative location provides contextual information (for example, a certain place is near the ocean, in an urban area, close to Chicago, etc.). This information can be very helpful, especially when more precise geographic information is not available.

In terms of providing geographic context, topographical maps—those featuring certain landmarks or buildings—often provide relative location by relating one specific place to places nearby. On a map of the United States, for instance, one can see that California is relative to its neighbor states of Oregon and Nevada.

Examples

To better understand the difference between absolute and relative location, take a look at the following examples.

The absolute location of the Capitol building in Washington D.C. is 38° 53′ 35″ N, 77° 00′ 32″ W in terms of latitude and longitude. Its address in the U.S. postal system is East Capitol Street NE & First St SE, Washington, D.C. 20004. In relative terms, the U.S. Capitol building is two blocks away from the Supreme Court of the United States.

The absolute location of the Empire State Building in New York City is 40.7484° N, 73.9857° W in terms of longitude and latitude. The building's address is 350 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10118. In relative terms, it is about a 15-minute walk south of Central Park.

What Is My Location?

Finding your absolute location at any given time can be done using geolocation software, which is found in most smartphones. This software uses the Global Positioning System (GPS), a satellite navigation system run by the U.S. government, to deliver precise information about the location of any GPS receiver on Earth. The GPS system is accurate within five meters (16 feet).

Relative location can be described in a variety of ways. For example, if you are meeting a friend somewhere at the mall, you could tell them that you're near a certain store. You could also specify that you're near the mall's north entrance. Alternatively, you could tell your friend that you're standing near a woman with purple hair. This may not be the most helpful direction, but it is a relative location. To describe your relative location, all you have to do is notice what is around you.

Because of advances in technology, it is sometimes easier to locate your absolute location than your relative location, especially if you are in a rural area without any notable landmarks nearby.