Relative vs. Absolute Location in Geography

Location is important in geography. But what’s the difference between absolute and relative location? In this lesson, you will learn the distinction between these two types of location. A short quiz following the lesson will allow you to test your knowledge.
Location Types in Geography
When people think of geography they tend to think about maps, countries, and learning capital cities. But this isn’t all that geography is about. Geography is a subject that looks at the physical features of the Earth and its atmosphere: it studies the impact of nature on those physical features, how humans impact the Earth’s physical features, and the way those physical features impact humans.
While geography might not be all about maps and places, location is still a major part of geography. Every topic studied in geography is examined with reference to location. For example, if you’re studying how local businesses will be affected by building a new highway, part of your study might look at the location of the highway relative to those businesses. If you’re exploring how mountains are growing in an area due to the collision of tectonic plates, you might consider the location of those plates and the location of the mountains being formed. Location is connected to both physical geography and human geography.
There are two ways to describe locations in geography: relative locations and absolute locations. This lesson describes these different types of location and the difference between the two.
Relative Location
Relative location is the position of a place as compared to another landmark. For example, you may look at the position of one city relative to another or the position of a bowling alley relative to the center of town. Let’s say you’re driving down the highway to spend a day at the beach, and you want to know how far it is to that beach. When a sign comes up telling you it’s 30 miles away, that is a relative location. Similarly, when you say that you live on the West Coast of the United States, that location is relative to this particular body of land (i.e. the United States).
Absolute Location
Absolute location describes the position of a place in a way that never changes, no matter your location. The location is identified by specific coordinates.
The most common coordinate system is longitude and latitude, which describes a specific place on the Earth’s surface. It doesn’t matter whether you are currently in New York City or Timbuktu, the longitude and latitude of London will always be the same. Longitude is the position of a place on the Earth east to west, measured in degrees. You can measure location on the Earth in degrees because the Earth is roughly spherical. Longitude is measured from a vertical line that goes through Greenwich, in the United Kingdom. West of that line is measured in degrees west, and east of that line is measured in degrees east. The opposite side of the world is 180° west or 180° east, while Greenwich itself is 0°. Latitude is the position of a place on the Earth north to south, measured in degrees. The equator is 0°, and other positions are measured in degrees north or degrees south. The North Pole is 90° north, and the South Pole is 90° south. Together, a latitude and longitude can describe any position on the Earth’s surface.
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