Absolute and Relative Location

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Geographers can describe the location of a place in one of two ways: absolute and relative. Both are descriptives of where a geographic location is.  Let’s learn about the difference between absolute and relative location.

Absolute Location

Absolute location describes the location of a place based on a fixed point on earth.  The most common way is to identify the location using coordinates such as latitude and longitude.  Lines of longitude and latitude crisscross the earth.

Latitude is used to mark the north-south position of a location on the Earth’s surface and ranges from 0 degrees at the equator to 90 degrees at the North and South Poles.  There are 180 degrees of latitude and the distance between each degree of latitude is roughly 69 miles (111 km).



An example of an absolute location using latitude and longitude is the United States Capitol which is located at 38° 53′ 35″ N, 77° 00′ 32″ W.  Latitude is always written first and latitude and longitude are composed of degrees, minutes, and seconds (DMS).

Absolute location can also refer to an address, the street address of the US State Capitol is First St SE in Washington, DC 20004.  In both instances, absolute location refers to a fixed point based on an abstract network of imaginary locations.  

(You might also be interested in reading about: Relative Direction Versus Compass Direction)

Relative Location

Relative location refers to the position of a place or entity based on its location with respect to other locations.  For example, the location of the US Capitol is located about 38 miles southwest of Baltimore.  Relative location can be expressed in terms of distance, travel time, or cost.

Relative location can also be used to provide geographic context.  For example, overview or locator maps show the relative location of a place or entity based on a larger geographic view.  For example, the inset map below, shows the relative location of the state of Texas within the United States.



Relative location, unlike absolute location is not a fixed reference.  In the map below, a person would describe the relative location of Broad River, which flows through North Caroline and South Carolina, differently. A person living in Hickory, North Carolina would describe the location of Broad river as flowing south and slightly west of them.  A person in Charlotte, North Carolina would describe the river as flowing west of them.  A person living in Spartanburg, South Carolina would describe the river as being located north and east of them.

Watch: Absolute Versus Relative Location

Examples of Absolute and Relative Location

More examples of absolute and relative location can be found here.



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