1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Latitude

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LATITUDE (Lat. latitudo, latus, broad), a word meaning breadth or width, hence, figuratively, freedom from restriction, but more generally used in the geographical and astronomical sense here treated. The latitude of a point on the earth’s surface is its angular distance from the equator, measured on the curved surface of the earth. The direct measure of this distance being impracticable, it has to be determined by astronomical observations. As thus determined it is the angle between the direction of the plumb-line at the place and the plane of the equator. This is identical with the angle between the horizontal planes at the place and at the equator, and also with the elevation of the celestial pole above the horizon (see Astronomy). Latitude thus determined by the plumb-line is termed astronomical. The geocentric latitude of a place is the angle which the line from the earth’s centre to the place makes with the plane of the equator. Geographical latitude, which is used in mapping, is based on the supposition that the earth is an elliptic spheroid of known compression, and is the angle which the normal to this spheroid makes with the equator. It differs from the astronomical latitude only in being corrected for local deviation of the plumb-line.

The latitude of a celestial object is the angle which the line drawn from some fixed point of reference to the object makes with the plane of the ecliptic.

Variability of Terrestrial Latitudes.—The latitude of a point on the earth’s surface, as above defined, is measured from the equator. The latter is defined by the condition that its plane makes a right angle with the earth’s axis of rotation. It follows that if the points in which this axis intersects the earth’s surface, i.e. the poles of the earth, change their positions on the earth’s surface, the position of the equator will also change, and therefore the latitudes of places will change also. About the end of the 19th century research showed that there actually was a very minute but measurable periodic change of this kind. The north and south poles, instead of being fixed points on the earth’s surface, wander round within a circle about 50 ft. in diameter. The result is a variability of terrestrial latitudes generally.

To show the cause of this motion, let BQ represent a section of an oblate spheroid through its shortest axis, PP. We may consider this spheroid to be that of the earth, the ellipticity being greatly exaggerated. If set in rotation around its axis of figure PP, it will continue to rotate around that axis for an indefinite time. But if, instead of rotating around PP, it rotates around some other axis, RR, making a small angle, POR, with the axis of figure PP; then it has been known since the time of Euler that the axis of rotation RR, if referred to the spheroid regarded as fixed, will gradually rotate round the axis of figure PP in a period defined in the following way:—If we put C = the moment of momentum of the spheroid around the axis of figure, and A = the corresponding moment around an axis passing through the equator EQ, then, calling one day the period of rotation of the spheroid, the axis RR will make a revolution around PP in a number of days represented by the fraction C/(C − A). In the case of the earth, this ratio is 1/0.0032813 or 305. It follows that the period in question is 305 days.

Up to 1890 the most careful observations and researches failed to establish the periodicity of such a rotation, though there was strong evidence of a variation of latitude. Then S. C. Chandler, from an elaborate discussion of a great number of observations, showed that there was really a variation of the latitude of the points of observation; but, instead of the period being 305 days, it was about 428 days. At first sight this period seemed to be inconsistent with dynamical theory. But a defect was soon found in the latter, the correction of which reconciled the divergence. In deriving a period of 305 days the earth is regarded as an absolutely rigid body, and no account is taken either of its elasticity or of the mobility of the ocean. A study of the figure will show that the centrifugal force round the axis RR will act on the equatorial protuberance of the rotating earth so as to make it tend in the direction of the arrows. A slight deformation of the earth will thus result; and the axis of figure of the distorted spheroid will no longer be PP, but a line P′P′ between PP and RR. As the latter moves round, P′P′ will continually follow it through the incessant change of figure produced by the change in the direction of the centrifugal force. Now the rate of motion of RR is determined by the actual figure at the moment. It is therefore less than the motion in an absolutely rigid spheroid in the proportion RP′ : RP. It is found that, even though the earth were no more elastic than steel, its yielding combined with the mobility of the ocean would make this ratio about 2 : 3, resulting in an increase of the period by one-half, making it about 457 days. Thus this small flexibility is even greater than that necessary to the reconciliation of observation with theory, and the earth is shown to be more rigid than steel—a conclusion long since announced by Kelvin for other reasons.

Chandler afterwards made an important addition to the subject by showing that the motion was represented by the superposition of two harmonic terms, the first having a period of about 430 days, the other of one year. The result of this superposition is a seven-year period, which makes 6 periods of the 428–day term (428d × 6 = 2568d = 7 years, nearly), and 7 periods of the annual term. Near one phase of this combined period the two component motions nearly annul each other, so that the variation is then small, while at the opposite phase, 3 to 4 years later, the two motions are in the same direction and the range of variation is at its maximum. The coefficient of the 428–day term seems to be between 0.12″ and 0.16″; that of the annual term between 0.06″ and 0.11″. Recent observations give smaller values of both than those made between 1890 and 1900, and there is no reason to suppose either to be constant.

The present state of the theory may be summed up as follows:—

1. The fourteen-month term is an immediate result of the fact that the axes of rotation and figure of the earth do not strictly coincide, but make with each other a small angle of which the mean value is about 0.15″. If the earth remained invariable, without any motion of matter on its surface, the result of this non-coincidence would be the revolution of the one pole round the other in a circle of radius 0.15″, or about 15 ft., in a period of about 429 days. This revolution is called the Eulerian motion, after the mathematician who discovered it. But owing to meteorological causes the motion in question is subject to annual changes. These changes arise from two causes—the one statical, the other dynamical.

2. The statical causes are deposits of snow or ice slowly changing the position of the pole of figure of the earth. For example, a deposit of snow in Siberia would bring the equator of figure of the earth a little nearer to Siberia and throw the pole a little way from it, while a deposit on the American continent would have the opposite effect. Owing to the approximate symmetry of the American and Asiatic continents it does not seem likely that the inequality of snowfall would produce an appreciable effect.

3. The dynamical causes are atmospheric and oceanic currents. Were these currents invariable their only effect would be that the Eulerian motion would not take place exactly round the mean pole of figure, but round a point slightly separated from it. But, as a matter of fact, they are subject to an annual variation. Hence the motion of the pole of rotation is also subject to a similar variation. The annual term in the latitude is thus accounted for.

Besides Chandler, Albrecht of Berlin has investigated the motion of the pole P. The methods of the two astronomers are in some points different. Chandler has constructed empirical formulae representing the motion, with the results already given, while Albrecht has determined the motion of the pole from observation simply, without trying to represent it either by a formula or by theory. It is noteworthy that the difference between Albrecht’s numerical results and Chandler’s formulae is generally less than 0.05″.

When the fluctuation in the position of the pole was fully confirmed, its importance in astronomy and geodesy led the International Geodetic Association to establish a series of stations round the globe, as nearly as possible on the same parallel of latitude, for the purpose of observing the fluctuation with a greater degree of precision than could be attained by the miscellaneous observations before available. The same stars were to be observed from month to month at each station with zenith-telescopes of similar approved construction. This secures a double observation of each component of the polar motion, from which most of the systematic errors are eliminated. The principal stations are: Carloforte, Italy; Mizusawa, Japan; Gaithersburg, Maryland; and Ukiah, California, all nearly on the same parallel of latitude, 39° 8′.

The fluctuations derived from this international work during the last seven years deviate but slightly from Chandler’s formulae though they show a markedly smaller value of the annual term. In consequence, the change in the amplitude of the fluctuation through the seven-year period is not so well marked as before 1900.

Chandler’s investigations are found in a series of papers published in the Astronomical Journal, vols. xi. to xv. and xviii. Newcomb’s explanation of the lengthening of the Eulerian period is found in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society for March 1892. Later volumes of the Astronomical Journal contain discussions of the causes which may produce the annual fluctuation. An elaborate mathematical discussion of the theory is by Vito Volterra: “Sulla teoria dei movimenti del Polo terrestre” in the Astronomische Nachrichten, vol. 138; also, more fully in his memoir “Sur la théorie des variations des latitudes,” Acta Mathematica, vol. xxii. The results of the international observations are discussed from time to time by Albrecht in the publications of the International Geodetic Association, and in the Astronomische Nachrichten (see also Earth, Figure of). (S. N.)