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?

  • 2
    Where in GIS is "up" == "northing" == "y" and "along" == "easting" == "x" NOT the case?
    – PolyGeo
    Jun 3 '14 at 8:05
  • 2
    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. 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
  • 1
    (+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. 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. 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

I realize this thread is WAY old, but I would like to offer another opinion that may shed some light on why northings,eastings are used in favor of x,y.

First, x,y is a rectangular system, Cartesian coordinates, and are ORDERED PAIR (x,y or x then y. X (being "a cross", actually goes across the page as the east west axis), Y as the north south axis. Y increases in the NE and NW quadrants, decreases in the SE & SW. X increases in the NE and SE quadrants, decreases in the NW & SW.

Northings and Eastings are just x and y reversed, meaning that they aren't an ordered pair...they are actually (y,x).

so why would we do this? Well, I would imagine it has a lot to do with surveyors and having to convert between rectangular coordinates and polar coordinates (r,θ) or (distance, angle). Remember that it is a rectangular coordinate system, therefore it is a RIGHT TRIANGLE, we can use Sin,Cos,Tan to find length of sides between coordinates, with the line between the two points being the hypotenuse, and one side being change in Y, the other change in X. so what side is adjacent and which opposite...well since in surveying lines are based off of bearings measured from north or south axis as zero always to east or west axis being the 90's (bearings never are greater than 90 degrees), the change in Y or the northing is always the adjacent side of the reference angle (the bearing angle). For instance a bearing of North 40 degrees East is measured from the North being zero, toward the east 40 degrees. Same for a South 40 degrees East bearing, measured from the south axis as zero toward the east 40 degrees.

But that doesn't explain why Northing, then easting or Y first then X. Well, if we continue on, converting from polar coordinates (distance, angle) to rectangular coordinates always gives us relative coordinates, not ABSOLUTE. In other words it gives us deltas or change in X, change in Y rather than absolute coordinate values. This is important, but not nearly as important as the understanding of bearing definition as compared to the Unit Circle in mathematics. Polar coordinates with (distance, angle) are based off of the Unit Circle in trigonometry. In the unit circle in trigonometry, 0 degrees is DUE EAST and increases in a counter clockwise manner. Example, due north would be 90, due west would be 180, due south 270 degrees. You know this if you are familiar with autocad. BUT...bearing angles are based off of North or South being zero and increasing clockwise or counterclockwise to the east or west. Many older calculators had functions of converting from polar to rectangular coordinates, but are based off of math and science using the unit circle from trig. Therefore, when using Sin of the angle multiplied by the distance of the line (sin θ multiplied by the hypotenuse length) results in the change in X rather than the change in Y. You must understand that the angle that the unit circle refers to is the complimentary angle to the bearing angle referenced (at least for northeast) With the single button function a surveyor in the field could convert polar to rectangular or vice versa rather than doing separate calculations using sin, then cosine. Since calculators give the rectangular coordinate conversion as Y, then X, I would imagine many mistakes were made with applying the change in Y to the X coordinate and so on. It was probably easier for the surveyors to start using (Northings, Eastings) rather than ordered pairs to decrease the number of mistakes made by not remembering to put the Y value first then the X value in the calculator.

That's my opinion, based upon absolutely nothing more than seeing my own students making mistakes with their calculators and getting confused with X,Y and N,E.

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