Spatial References

We specify locations on the Earth using coordinates, tuples of numbers that pinpoint a particular place on the map at some level of precision. But just knowing the coordinates is not enough; you need to know how to interpret them.

A Spatial Reference (SRS) maps a set of coordinates to a corresponding real location on the earth.

For example, given the coordinates of a location on the earth:

(-121.5, 36.8, 2000.0)

Those numbers are meaningless unless you know how to use them. So combine that with some reference information:

Coordinate System Type: Geographic
Units:                  Degrees
Horizontal datum:       WGS84
Vertical datum:         EGM96

Now you can figure out exactly where the point is on earth, where it is relative to other points, and how to convert it to other representations.

Components of an SRS

A spatial reference, or SRS, contains:

Coordinate System Type

osgEarth supports three basic coordinate system types:

  • Geographic - A whole-earth, ellipsoidal model. Coordinates are spherical angles in degrees (longitude and latitude). Examples include WGS84 and NAD83. (Learn more)
  • Projected - A local coordinate system takes a limited region of the earth and “projects” it into a 2D cartesion (X,Y) plane. Examples include UTM, US State Plane, and Mercator. (Learn more.)
  • ECEF - A whole earth, cartesian system. ECEF = Earth Centered Earth Fixed; it is a 3D cartesion system (X,Y,Z) with the origin (0,0,0) at the earth’s center; the X-axis intersecting lat/long (0,0), the Y-axis intersecting lat/long (0,-90), and the Z-axis intersecting the north pole. ECEF is the native system in which osgEarth renders its graphics. (Learn more)

Horizontal Datum

A datum is a reference point (or set of points) against which geospatial measurements are made. The same location on earth can have different coordinates depending on which datum is in use. There are two classes of datum:

A horizontal datum measures positions on the earth. Since the earth is not a perfect sphere or even a perfect ellipsoid, particular datums are usually designed to approximate the shape of the earth in a particular region. Common datums include WGS84 and NAD83 in North America, and ETR89 in Europe.

Vertical Datum

A vertical datum measures elevation. There are several classes of vertical datum; osgEarth supports geodetic (based on an ellipsoid) and geoid (based on a sample set of elevation points around the planet).

osgEarth has the following vertical datums built in:

  • Geodetic - the default; osgEarth uses the Horizontal datum ellipsoid as a reference
  • EGM84 geoid
  • EGM96 geoid - commonly called MSL; used in DTED and KML
  • EGM2008 geoid

By default, SRS’s in osgEarth use a geodetic vertical datum; i.e., altitude is measured as “height above ellipsoid (HAE)”.


A projected SRS will also have a Projection. This is a mathematical formula for transforming a point on the ellipsoid into a 2D plane (and back).

osgEarth supports thousands of known projections (by way of the GDAL/OGR toolkit). Notable ones include:

  • UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator)
  • Sterographic
  • LCC (Lambert Conformal Conic)

Each has particular characteristics that makes it desirable for certain types of applications. Please see Map Projections on Wikipedia to learn more.

SRS Representations

There are many ways to define an SRS. osgEarth supports the following.

WKT (Well Known Text)

WKT is an OGC standard for describing a coordinate system. It is commonly found in a “.prj” file alongside a piece of geospatial data, like a shapefile or an image.

Here is the WKT representation for the UTM Zone 15N projection:



PROJ4 is a map projections toolkit used by osgEarth and hundreds of other geospatial applications and toolkits. It has a shorthand represtation for describing an SRS. Here is the same SRS above, this time in PROJ4 format:

+proj=utm +zone=15 +ellps=GRS80 +units=m +no_defs

PROJ4 has data tables for all the common components (like UTM zones and datums) so you don’t have to explicitly define everything like you do with WKT.

EPSG Codes

The EPSG (the now-defunct European Petroleum Survey Group) established a table of numerical codes for referencing well-known projections. You can browse a list of there here. osgEarth will accept EPSG codes; again for the example above:


If you know the EPSG code it’s a nice shorthand way to express it. OGR/PROJ4, which osgEarth requires, includes a large table of EPSG codes.


The last category is the named SRS. There are some SRS’s that are so common that we include shorthand notation for them. These include:

wgs84:World Geographic Survey 1984 geographic system
 Spherical mercator (commonly used in web mapping systems)
plate-carre:WGS84 projected flat (X=longitude, Y=latitude)

Using Spatial References in osgEarth

There are several ways to work with an SRS in osgEarth, but the easiest way it to use the GeoPoint class. However let’s look at creating an SRS first and then move on to the class.

SpatialReference API

The SpatialReference class represents an SRS. Lots of classes and functions in osgEarth require an SRS. Here’s how you create on in code:

const SpatialReference* srs = SpatialReference::get("epsg:4326");

That will give you an SRS. The get() function will accept any of the SRS representations we discussed above: WKT, PROJ4, EPSG, or Aliases.

If you need an SRS with a vertical datum, express that as a second parameter. osgEarth support egm84, egm96, and egm2008. Use it like this:

srs = SpatialReference::get("epsg:4326", "egm96");

It’s sometimes useful to be able to access an SRS’s component types as well. For example, every projected SRS has a base geographic SRS that it’s based upon. You can get this by calling:

geoSRS = srs->getGeographicSRS();

If you’re transforming a projected point to latitude/longitude, that’s the output SRS you will want.

You can also grab a geocentric (ECEF) SRS corresponding to any SRS, like so:

geocentricSRS = srs->getGeocentricSRS();

SpatialReference has lots of functions for doing transformations, etc. Consult the header file for information on those. But in practice it is usually best to use classes like GeoPoint instead of using SpatialReference directly.

GeoPoint API

A GeoPoint is a georeferenced 2D or 3D point. (“Georeferenced” means that the coordinate values are paired with an SRS - this means all the information necessary to plot that point on the map is self-contained.) There are other “Geo” classes including GeoExtent (a bounding box) and GeoCircle (a bounding circle).

Here is how you create a 2D GeoPoint:

GeoPoint point(srs, x, y);

You can also create a 3D GeoPoint with an altitude:

GeoPoint point(srs, x, y, z, ALTMODE_ABSOLUTE);

The ALTMODE_ABSOLUTE is the altitude mode, and it required when you specify a 3D coordinate:

 Z is relative to the SRS’ vertical datum, i.e., height above ellipsoid or height above the geoid.
 Z is relative to the height of the terrain under the point.

Now that you have your GeoPoint you can do transformations on it. Say you want to transform it to another SRS:

GeoPoint point(srs, x, y);
GeoPoint newPoint = point.transform(newSRS);

Here’s a more concrete example. Say you have a point in latitude/longitude (WGS84) and you need to express it in UTM Zone 15N:

const SpatialReference* wgs84 = SpatialReference::get("wgs84");
const SpatialReference* utm15 = SpatialReference::get("+proj=utm +zone=15 +ellps=GRS80 +units=m");
GeoPoint wgsPoint( wgs84, -93.0, 34.0 );
GeoPoint utmPoint = wgsPoint.transform( utm15 );

if ( utmPoint.isValid() )
   // do something

Always check isValid() because not every point in one SRS can be transformed into another SRS. UTM Zone 15, for example, is only defined for a 6-degree span of longitude – values too far outside this range might fail!