The definition of north and east are pretty straight forward to grasp but only becomes difficult when used interchangably with x-y coordinates which have varying definitions for the direction of the axes. In Mathematics y was always vertical and x was always horizontal so logically I would assume that "up" == "northing" == "y" and "along" == "easting" == "x".

Why is this not the case in GIS?

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    Where in GIS is "up" == "northing" == "y" and "along" == "easting" == "x" NOT the case? – PolyGeo Jun 3 '14 at 8:05
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    Can you give an example of a coordinate system where X is the northing ? – radouxju Jun 3 '14 at 8:05
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    Spatialreference.org agrees that in EPSG:2393 Easting is Y. See spatialreference.org/ref/epsg/2393/html ` AXIS["Y",EAST], AXIS["X",NORTH]]` Other Gauss-Krüger systems define it in a similar way, for example German spatialreference.org/ref/epsg/31467/html – user30184 Jun 3 '14 at 8:43
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    Anyone who has GDAL installed on Linux can have a look at the great variation in axis names, orientations and abbreviations by reading the coordinate_axis.csv file from /share/gdal/ Not only can X mean east or north, it can also mean west, south, or north-east. It is also possible that X is the second term of a coordinate, thus (Y,X) instead of (X,Y). Conclusion: Axis names and orientations are just definitions and agreements made by human beings. – user30184 Jun 3 '14 at 10:24
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    I think I have realised that it is better not to mention coordinates in terms of X/Y and will use Northings/Eastings in future. – Robert Buckley Jun 3 '14 at 12:30

There are many different conventions. It might help to first consider X-Y-Z, not necessarily as having any implied geographical directions, but simply as being the 1st, 2nd, 3rd ordinates or axes in a cartesian system. As a bonus, let's also address B, a directional measure.

In mathematics, a so-called right-handed system is used:

  • X increases from left to right, "across the page"
  • Y increases from bottom to top, "up the page"
  • Z increases from towards the observer, "away from the page"
  • B increases counter-clockwise from the positive X-axis, about the Z-axis

In geomatics, a so-called left-handed system is sometimes used.

As far as surveyors in USA and Canada are concerned:

  • X increases from south to north, and is called "northing"
  • Y increases from west to east, and is called "easting"
  • Z increases from down to up, and is called "elevation"
  • B increases clockwise from the positive X-axis, about the Z-axis

Notice that the, northing-easting-elevation ordering, is compatible with the traditional latitude-longitude-altitude ordering used in navigation.

As for South African surveyors (via Andre's answer, but i may need to be corrected about terminology):

  • X increases from north to south (and is called "southing"?)
  • Y increases from east to west (and is called "westing"?)
  • Z increases from down to up, and is called "elevation"
  • B increases clockwise from the positive X-axis (south), about the Z-axis (is it correct?)

In other geomatics cases, (what i call) a hybrid system is used.

For Hawaiian and Phillipino surveyors:

  • X increases from south to north, and is called "northing"
  • Y increases from west to east, and is called "easting"
  • Z increases from down to up, and is called "elevation"
  • B increases clockwise from the negative X-axis (south), about the Z-axis

In GIS, we usually follow the UTM convention, as do UK surveyors:

  • X increases from west to east, and is called "easting"
  • Y increases from south to north, and is called "northing"
  • Z increases from down to up, and is called "elevation"
  • B increases clockwise from the positive X-axis, about the Z-axis
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    (+1: this is a useful overview.) Mathematics explicitly makes no assumptions about the "directions" of axes, which are abstract. An orientation of coordinates is established by prescribing an order to the axes, but that too is independent of how one might choose to render the axes graphically. See, e.g., Edwin Moise, Calculus pp 19 et seq. – whuber Jun 3 '14 at 21:06
  • However, the ETRS89 based UTM zones which are recommended in INSPIRE are using the Northing-Easting order epsg-registry.org/… Unfortunately spatialreference.org has it in a wrong way spatialreference.org/ref/epsg/3044/html – user30184 Jun 4 '14 at 8:33

The usual coordinate orientation of X to the East and Y to the North works well in Central Europe and Asia, where both have positive values.

South Africans do it the other way round, calculating X from the equator southwards and Y westwards to get a right-hand coordinate system.:


The Krovak projection used in Czech Republic and Slovakia also uses a South-West-orientated coordinate system, based on an imaginary point in Finland (for a reason I don't quite understand):


  • The Krovak projection coordinates are a local geodesic standard I (as a Czech geographer) am unable to understand as well. The imaginary point in Estonia (AFAIK near Tallinn) is chosen to minimize the overall projection distortion. – Jan Šimbera Jun 3 '14 at 20:52
  • Edit: I think the axis orientation might trace to Austro-Hungarian times with the stable cadastre using the transversal Cassini-Soldner projection. – Jan Šimbera Jun 3 '14 at 21:05

Talking about Northing and Easting for X and Y cartesian coordinate system is somehow abusive. Most of the projected coordinate systems do not have both X and Y axes parallel to the parallels and meridians. Some times it will be approximately the case, but some times you can't even define a direction (for instance, take an polar Azimuthal projection).

Based on the examples from @user31467 and @Robert Buckley, X and Y are "inverted" in the case of transverse projections (so that the Y axis follows the axis of the cylinder)

  • UTM-WGS84 zones are also transverse projections but the axis order is Easting-Northing. Axis names in UTM are not X and Y but EAST and NORTH, though. – user30184 Jun 4 '14 at 10:01
  • true, I was just observing the fact that the two examples were transverse, but I did not mean that all transverse were "inverted" – radouxju Jun 4 '14 at 10:07

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