What is the Difference Between An Absolute and A Relative Location?

Mileage signs along highways indicate relative locations.
Mileage signs along highways indicate relative locations.

When the term “geography” is mentioned, a lot of people think of volcanoes, capital cities, oceans, mountains, and maps. However, geography consists of a lot more. It involves the earth's physical features and its atmosphere, how nature impacts the physical features, and the relationship between humans and the earth features. One key aspect of the subject is location, although it might seem like an everyday aspect of human life, it is extremely important. Birds, insects, wild animals, and even sea creatures make decisions that are based on location. For example, a pride of lions would choose to establish a territory close to a river or a marsh because of availability of prey and camouflage.

Human beings perhaps benefit the most from locations. It is an essential aspect of navigation that allows movement. By determining the location of moving tectonic plates, seismologists can determine where and when an earthquake is likely to occur and can even anticipate its strength and destructiveness. When referring to a point or place on a map, one refers to either a relative or absolute location.

Relative Location

A relative location refers to a particular place in reference to another point, place, or landmark. When describing the relative location of St. Louis, Missouri, one can describe that it is located in eastern Missouri on the banks of the Mississippi river and southwest of Springfield, Illinois. When driving along highways, the mileage signs indicate the direction and distance to the next landmark which may be a town or a city. The sign shows the distance and direction of the landmark in relation to the current location. Relative location is also used to refer to a location in a large context. For example, one could refer to Canada as a country located north of the United States, or the state of Missouri is located in the Midwest and is bordered by the states of Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois. In the context above, the relative location of Missouri has been described based on its location within the US.

Absolute Location

Absolute Location refers to a fixed place on the earth’s surface. An absolute location is determined by the geographic coordinates given in latitudes and latitudes. With reference to the previous example, St. Louis is located 38°43' North 90°14' West. Absolute locations can also be given in the form of fixed addresses. For example, The St. Louis City Hall is located at 1200 Market Street, St. Louis, Missouri 63103. It is easier to give the coordinates of a building or a city, but it is relatively impossible to give the coordinates of a country or a state. However, one can determine the absolute locations of state boundaries. Modern technology such as smartphones employs the use of the GPS to determine the absolute location and guide users to their destinations.


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