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Absolute Vs. Relative Location With Definitions

There are two ways to describe physical location: absolutely or relatively. If you want to find out the differences between absolute and relative location with definitions and examples, you have come to the right place.

In geography, location can be either absolute or relative. In either case, we are talking about the geographic location but there are some differences between absolute and relative geographical location. In this article, we will learn what these differences are and when geographers use one or the other.

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What Is Absolute Location?

Absolute location always refers to the location of a specific place based on a fixed point on the planet. Normally, this is done by using coordinates such as latitude and longitude. Geographers use the lines of latitude and longitude because they crisscross the earth.

What is latitude? Latitude is a coordinate that specifies the geographical position of any point on Earth in terms of north and south. There are 180 degrees of latitude and there is a distance between each of those degrees of approximately 111 km (69 miles). Latitude can range anything from 0 degrees at the equator and 90 at the Poles (North and South).

“Nothing makes the Earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.” — Henry David Thoreau

What is longitude? Longitude is a coordinate that specifies the geographical position of any point on Earth in terms of east and west.

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The absolute location of a place is determined using latitude and longitude. Let us see some examples of absolute location with some well-known world capitals:

  • Washington, D.C, United States: 39.9072Âș N, 77.0369Âș W
  • Mexico City, Mexico: 19.4326Âș N, 99.1332Âș W
  • Sydney, New South Wales, Australia: 33.8688Âș S, 151.2093Âș E
  • Tokyo, Japan: 35.6895Âș N, 139.6917 Âș E
  • Beijing, China: 39.9042Âș N, 116.4074 Âș E
  • Moscow, Russia: 55.7558Âș N, 37.6173Âș E
  • Paris, France: 48.8566Âș N, 2.3522Âș E

The first number refers to latitude and the second number to longitude. These numbers refer to degrees. Locations below the Equator are marked with an S (South) and those above the Equator with an N (North). Locations east of the Prime Meridian are marked with an E and those that are west to the Prime Meridian with a W.

Unsurprisingly, this way of establishing an exact location is Eurocentric.

But, absolute location can mean something a bit different. Sometimes the term absolute location can refer to the exact street address of a location. For example,

  • 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington DC 20500, USA is the absolute location of the White House.
  • Avenida JuĂĄrez, Centro HistĂłrico, 06050 Ciudad de MĂ©xico, CDMX, Mexico is the absolute location of the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Mexico City).
  • Bennelong Point, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia is the absolute location of the Sydney Opera House.
  • 4 Chome-2-8 Shibakoen, Minato, Tokyo 105-0011, Japan is the absolute location of the Tokyo Tower.
  • Moscow, Russia, 103073 is the absolute location of the Moscow Kremlin.
  • 4 Jingshan Front Street, Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China, 100006 is the absolute location of the Forbidden City-The Palace Museum (Beijing).
  • Champ de Mars, 5 Avenue Anatole France, 75007 Paris, France is the absolute location of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

As you can see, the kind of absolute location can be determined by the format. When we are talking about the kind of absolute location that involves longitude and latitude the format is always the same. But, we are talking about specific postal addresses, the format may vary from country to country. Yet, the differences between both versions of the absolute location are distinctive enough.

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What is Relative Location?

Now that we have seen what absolute location is, let us look at relative location.

The relative location of a place is always determined in relation to Relative location may not seem as precise as either of the two versions of absolute location, but it is still helpful to locate a specific place.

“Location is everything; I’d rather camp in the Lake District or Scotland than sit in a five-star hotel in Frankfurt.” — Rory Bremner

There are several ways of establishing the relative location of a place: distance (in miles or kilometers), travel time (by car, plane, train, boat, bicycle, walking, and a combination of those), or by the cost of the trip.

Let us look at some examples of relative location:

  • The location of the French city of Marseille is about 774 kilometers (481 miles) south-east of Paris, France. But it is also over 3 hours by train, over 7 hours by car, 43 hours by bicycle, or even 156 hours by foot. Train tickets may be purchased starting from 10 Euros. All of these can be used to establish the relative location of Marseille.
  • The location of Toronto, Ontario (Canada) is about 800 kilometers (500 miles) northwest of New York City. It is just under 8 hours by train, 12 and a half hours by car. It is estimated that a person could walk that distance in 147 hours of non-stop walking.

As you can see, relative location can be extremely useful in practical terms (not that absolute location can’t be). The relative location allows us to think about location in a larger context. For instance, within a country: Andalusia is a region in Spain south of the regions of Extremadura, La Mancha and Murcia, that borders with Portugal to the West, and the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean sea to the South; Wales is one of the home nations in the United Kingdom, located west of England and separated from Ireland by the Irish Sea; or Indiana is a state in the Midwest region of the United States bordering Michigan to the north, Lake Michigan to the northwest, Kentucky to the south, Ohio to the east, and Illinois to the west.

“We’re not lost, we’re locationally challenged.” — John M. Ford

In fact, both absolute and relative location can be useful in practical or scientific terms. What is important is to understand the differences between them and knowing one it is more appropriate to use one over the others.

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