Lat-Long Distance Estimates

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Problem Description

Here's a little program that estimates the surface distance between two points on earth defined by their latitude and longitude.

Background & Techniques  

A viewer recently requested this facility which happened to pique my curiosity.  A usual, there is lots to learn but the basic concepts are not too difficult.   

Latitude and Longitude represent the angle portion of a point in space defined in polar coordinates.  Recall that in 2 dimensional space a point may be defined either by Cartesian or polar coordinates.  A Cartesian coordinate defines a location as the horizontal and vertical distance from some fixed point, the origin.  Polar coordinates define a point by the length and angle of a line segment from the origin to the point.  There is a Math-Topics page illustrating the relationship between the two systems.   Now, if we imagine a point on a flat 2-dimensional page defined by the two numbers and then we want to move the point into 3-dimensional space by lifting up off the page, we need one more number.   For Cartesian coordinates, the third number will be the height of the point above the page.  For polar coordinates, we'll rotate the line segment up off of the page and measure the vertical angle from the page up to the line.     

Latitude and Longitude are the  two polar coordinate angles.  If we imagine ourselves at the earth's center with the top our head pointing to the North pole and out feet toward the South pole, the equator will be at 90 degrees from North - straight out in front of us.  .  This imaginary line around the earth at a 90 degree angle to the North pole is defined as 0 reference for measuring  Latitude, the North-South angular coordinate of a point.  Another imaginary line running north and south along the surface of the earth and passing through the poles and Greenwich England is the 0 degree reference for measuring East-West angles, the Longitude.  Latitudes range from 90 degrees North to 90 degrees South with South angles treated as negative.  Longitudes range from 0 to 180 degrees East and West with West angles treated a negative.    

The actual math to calculate the distance between two points is straightforward and derived in many places on the web, namely:  angular distance =   arccos(Sin(lat1) * Sin(lat2) + Cos(lat1) * Cos(lat2) * Cos(lon1-lon2)) and assuming that the angle is given in degrees,  distance = distance per degree*angular distance = (2*Pi*radius/360)*angular distance.    This is the spherical distance estimate produced by this program. 

Flat Earth?   

The above explanation considers  the third parameter of the polar coordinate defining a point, the length of the line segment, to be constant, namely the radius of the earth.  But in fact the earth is not spherical.  Our rotation has caused the earth to bulge slightly at the equator and flatten at the poles.    Sir Isaac Newton in the 1600's calculated the radius at the poles to be 0.9967 of the radius at the equator.  The current value is about 0.9966  so Sir Isaac didn't do too badly.    The difference of the two circumferences (polar and equatorial) is about 83 miles, so spherical coordinates for two points on on the equator but 180 degrees apart should produce the maximum error, about 40 miles.    By the way, these distance estimates are "great circle estimates" meaning they lie on the path defined by the plane through the two points plus the earth's center and the surface of the earth.   The great circle route is the shortest surface distance between the two points.  Counter-intuitively, if you are north of the equator and want to get to a point directly east of your current location, don't head east - the shortest way is to start out traveling northeast and arrive traveling southeast!  

Calculating distances taking into account the elliptical shape of the earth is quite complex. There are approximations that are at least close to the true distance as those that assume a spherical earth.   The one used here is from

Addendum October 3, 2008:   After 4 years, it must be time for an update.    A viewer wrote recently asking how to calculate an end point given a starting point, a bearing, and a distance.  After some searching, I found Vincenty's algorithm and equations.  In 1975, geodesist Thaddeus Vincenty published equations that produced very accurate results by iterating intermediate results.   It was one of the early applications to geodesic measurements during the period when applications were moving from desktop calculators to computers.  Versions for both the "distance between points" problems and the "endpoint from start, bearing and distance" problem.  Both are included in  Version 2 of LatLong Distance program posted today.  

March 25, 2016:  Time for the next edition.  This time in response to a request from a blind(!) Delphi programmer working on a program that would allow "blinds" (his term, so I guess it's OK) to virtually travel the earth by moving from one Lat-Lon point fin a direction for a distance.    We both learned that things get tricky if "distance" means "shortest distance" as it does in this program.  If I pick a point Northern hemisphere and stretch a string to another point straight East at the same latitude on a globe, you will see that you must start travelling slightly North of East to get there.  This is the "Great Circle" effect.  I had developed code to plot points code along a constant bearing, but after thinking about it, Stefan decided he like traveling the Great Circle route.  He did  need a way to plot the bearings at fixed distances along the way.  Version 3.0 posted today does that displaying points travel along the great circle from a point given a starting bearing and a total distance.  User can select 1, 10, or 100 steps and see the coordinates and the new bearing at each step along the way.   

In the process, I discovered a coding error in my previous implementation of the Vincenty direct algorithm which caused bearings to be off by 180 under some conditions.  After several days of looking for my error, I made (and now use) my conversion of an NGS (National Geographic Information System) Fortran program which is not only simpler, but eliminates this error.      


April 15, 2016:  One more feature was added today.  When calculating an end point from a start point, direction and distance, Version 3.2 allows the user to choose between Great Circle  and Rhumb Line travel .  Great Circle travel is the shortest route between two points because it follows intersection of the earths surface with the plane formed by the start point, the destination and the center of the earth.  The disadvantage is the travel requires continuously adjusting the direction of travel as measured by the "latitude/longitude" measurement system,.  The new Rhumb Line option allows one to travel at a constant bearing from where you are to where you want go or to explore what lies at a a given direction at a given distance.  But, unless you tunnel, every inch traveled that is not on the Great Circle route takes you further from the center of the earth and therefore increases the distance traveled to the destination.  Constant bearing (Rhumb line) travel is not the shortest way to get there, just the simplest.  

June 3, 2017:  With multiple programs using our LatLonDistance unit, it has been relocated to the DFF Library unit (DFFLibV15).   This program now exists in the Library section of the site and references the LatLonDistance unit in its new location.   The   routines in the  the unit and this test program have both been converted to accept and return  Latitude, Longitude,  and Azimuth (Bearing) values in degrees instead of radians.  The actual calculations require radians, but the necessary conversions for inputs and outputs are now handled within the routines and should be transparent to the calling programs.       


Running/Exploring the Program 

bullet Download source
bulletDownload  executable
bulletDownload DFF Library Source  (Current version DFFLibV15

Suggestions for Further Explorations

Most accurate calculation of surface distance reportedly requires numeric integration of over the path between the points.  I assume that these are spherical trig estimates with the radius adjusted for the "flatness" at the current location.  Might be interesting to try.    


Original Date: November 14, 2004 

Modified: July 29, 2017

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