WGS84 is often referred to as a "projection system" and sometimes it is confusing to me about what a "projection system" is and where WGS84 falls in one.

Could someone please clear that up for me?


2 Answers 2


So there are two pieces to what someone might call a Coordinate System

The first is a Geographic Coordinate System or GCS, which is what WGS84 falls under. The definition given by ESRI states that a GCS uses a three-dimensional spherical surface to define locations on the earth. Basically, a GCS is used to define your real world points on a 3 dimensional digital surface. Examples of this include WGS84 (World Geodetic Survey 1984), NAD83 (North American Datum 1983), or NAD27 (used before NAD83. North American Datum 1927)

The other is a Projected Coordinate System or PCS. A PCS is used to take those points that you defined with your GCS and translate them to a 2-dimensional surface. This is what people commonly refer to as a "projection". This can include things like Robinson, Albers Equal Area, and (one of my personal favorites) Waterman butterfly.

These are different parts and are made up of different pieces, but both of these together create a coordinate system. This is the very simple definition of both, but if you want to get into the math of everything, ESRI has good documentation in their resources section discussing map projections. Wikipedia's page on map projections also does a very good job of explaining the different types of PCSs, what distortions are caused, etc. Many projections also have their own pages explaining their history, math, etc.


Projection, called WGS 84 is defined under EPSG code 4326. World projected with this projection looks like this:Image showing world continetns with meridians and parallels by using WGS projection

This projection is based on ellipsoid WGS 84, which defines the coordinate system that is also called WGS 84

  • This isn't entirely correct. This is a Mercator projection of the WGS84 geographic coordinate system.
    – Wes
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 11:30
  • 7
    This is definitely not a Mercator projection. Mercator has much more distortion in the extreme northern and southern latitudes (Greenland, Antarctica, etc.). It's WGS84 for sure, but that is the GCS. It more than likely either A. Doesn't have a PCS associated with it or B. Uses Platte as the PCS.
    – BDD
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 12:06
  • Yeah you're right. My mistake.
    – Wes
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 12:36
  • 12
    Nevertheless, WGS84 is not a projection. The image shown uses a Plate Carree (aka Equirectangular) Projection. EPSG:4326 is a "spatial reference" system. Also see gis.stackexchange.com/questions/3334.
    – whuber
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 16:25

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