If you have ever seen a map or globe, chances are you’ve also seen a coordinate system. A coordinate system is a grid-like system used to represent geographical locations exactly and accurately.

Say you needed to instruct a friend to go somewhere, for example: a specific tree in a forest. You might try to describe the tree’s location to the person in terms of how long it takes to get there from your current location, what the tree looks like, and how far away it is from the landmarks surrounding it. However, even after all of these descriptions, the person will likely still be confused about exactly where to find this tree.

With a coordinate system, you would find it much easier to direct your friend to the exact place you wanted them to find. A coordinate system uses two numbers, together called a coordinate, to specify a location. One number represents a location along an east/west or horizontal line, the other is a corresponding location along a north/south or vertical line on a map or globe. Together, these two numbers give you a specific point that can be easily located on a map or navigated to using a GPS.

A coordinate system has much more powerful uses than simply directing a friend to a tree. Not only can you locate and place landmarks more accurately on a map, but you can also layer different types of information together. For example, if you have the coordinates of every lake in an area and the coordinates of every instance of a certain type of tree, you could layer these two sets of coordinates over each other and on to a map. This allows you to see relationships between different things, such as whether the trees grow beside the lakes or prefer dryer locations.

Coordinate systems are an essential part of society. They are a powerful tool for navigation and for comparing and layering geographical information. Whether you’re surveying an area or just trying to find your way to a new place, your life would certainly be much harder without them.

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