Map Projections in ArcGIS Pro

The Earth is a spheroid - it is round like a ball or sphere but flattened by slightly by the centrifugal force of rotation. The Earth has a circumference of around 24,900 miles, but is around 27 miles wider than it is tall.

The Earth exists in three-dimensions but, other than globes, most representations of the earth, such as printed maps or web maps, are two dimensional. A projection is a set of mathematical transformations used to represent the three-dimensional world in two dimensions.

There are hundreds of different projections, although most GIS users only use a handful of common variants.

The three-dimensional geometry behind projections can be quite complex, but since GIS software handles that math, most GIS users can accomplish their tasks with a basic understanding of the fundamental components of different projections.

This tutorial introduces some basics on selecting projections, applying projections, and getting information about projections in ArcGIS Pro.

Earthrise (NASA, 1968)

Setting and Changing Projections in ArcGIS Pro

Projections can be changed on an ArcGIS Pro map by right-clicking on the layer in the Contents pane and selecting Properties -> Coordinate Systems.

The dialog box will show you the current projection and allow you to search or browse for a new projection.

The video below demonstrates how to change a world map from its existing projection (Web Mercator) to the common Robinson projection:

Changing a Projection in ArcGIS Pro

Geographic Coordinate Systems

A projection results in a coordinate system that indicates where to draw features on a page or screen.

The projections dialog gives you two sets of coordinate systems to choose from:

These two sets of coordinate systems are used because there are two separate steps for converting the complex three-dimensional world into a clean two-dimensional set of features that can be visualized for meaningful communication.

While the software gives you the option to display a map in different geographic coordinate systems, you will normally only create maps using projected coordinate systems. The geographic coordinate system used to create the projected coordinate system is implied when you choose a projected coordinate system.

The Relationship Between Geographic and Projected Coordinates

The lumpy surface of the earth is approximated with a simplified representation called a geoid.

Then a smooth mathematical ellipsoid or spheroid representation of that geoid that is used as the reference for latitude and longitude degrees. This reference system is called a geodetic datum, often just called a datum for convenience.

Each geodetic datum defines a geographic coordinate system that indicates what locations on the surface of the planet are referenced with a specific latitude and longitude.

Relationship Between Terrain, an Datum, and an Ellipsoid

The science of creating geoids is called geodesy or geodetics. Geodetic engineers measure three fundamental properties of the earth. Because these properties are constantly changing (albeit in often subtle ways), geodetic engineers always have something to do in support of the earth sciences.

There are dozens of different datums that have been developed over the past century to best fit a datum to specific parts of the earth using the technology of the time. In the United States you will commonly encounter these datums:

GIS software can transform data created with one geographic coordinate system into another, and when you are just visualizing data on a simple map, geographic coordinate systems are generally not a concern. However, there are times you need to pay attention to geographic coordinate systems:

You can find the geographic coordinate system used in a projection by selecting the Details option in the ArcGIS Pro coordinate systems dialog. For example, this video shows that the Robinson world projection used in ArcGIS Online uses the WGS 1984 datum:

Details on the Robinson Projection

Coordinate System ID Numbers

Projections are often named after the cartographers that developed them. While some common projections have names that are generally understood (like spherical mercator), a name is not usually enough to indicate what specific projection you want to use.

For example, although the Mercator is a well known general type of projection, different Mercator projections have different parameters depending on how they wrap the world in different ways (transverse, oblique) at different places (central meridian) and use different coordinate units.

Most coordinate systems can be specifically identified with a WKID (well-known identifier). There are two different sets of WKID numbers, so you need both the WKID and the name of the authority that defines what those numbers means:

An exhaustive list of different coordinate system ID numbers is available at SpatialReference.org

The details for the Robinson projection in ArcGIS Online demonstrated in the video below show that projection is based on a WGS 1984 geographic coordinate system (EPSG ID 4326) and the projected coordinate system is ESRI ID 54030.

Details on the Robinson Projection

Common World Projected Coordinate Systems

There are dozens of different types of projections. When you consider that many of those projections have parameters that can be varied depending on the part of the earth you wish to focus on, the number of possible projections is infinite.

However, there are a much more limited number of projections that are commonly used. The following are some North-America-centric suggestions that can give you a good starting point in seeking an appropriate projection for your map.

World Mercator

Mercator is one of the oldest and most commonly seen projections. It was devised by the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) during the great age of European exploration, and as such it is conformal (preserves direction) in order to facilitate naval navigation.

The primary disadvantage of the Mercator is that it makes areas close to the poles like Greenland look much larger than they really are. This is called the "Greenland Problem."

World Mercator (EPSG 3395)

The Mercator projection is a cylindrical projection, with a developable surface equivalent to wrapping the map as a cylinder around the earth.

Cylindrical Projection

Spherical Mercator (Web Mercator)

Spherical Mercator is a variation of the Mercator projection that mathematically represents the world as a sphere rather than an ellipsoid to make calculations easier. This is the projection used by almost all web maps.

Because the world is slightly flattened, this spherical representation causes the map to be inaccurate when mapping large areas closer to the poles. However, that is not usually a major problem with a web mapping app like Google Maps that is used in lower latitudes for mundane tasks like finding sushi restaurants.

Google Maps Spherical Mercator (EPSG 3857)

Robinson Projection

The Robinson projection is a compromise projection developed by Arthur Robinson in 1964. The Robinson projection solved the "Greenland Problem" by representing the country closer to its actual size than the Mercator projection. The Robinson projection is considered by many to be visually appealing and in 1988 was adopted by the National Geographic Society for some of its world maps in place of the older Van der Grinten projection.

The World Robinson Projection (ESRI 54030)

Winkel Tripel

Winkel Tripel is another compromise projection devised by Oswald Winkel in 1921 that strives to represent the whole world while minimizing distortion of area, direction and distance (tripel means three in German). This is the projection used for maps by the National Geographic Society and many educational publishers.

Winkel Tripel Projection (Wikipedia - ESRI 54042)

McArthur's Universal Corrective Map

McArthur's Universal Corrective Map is one of a number of alternative projections intended to provoke viewers to critically examine assumptions about maps. It is a variant on a Mercator projection by Australian cartographer Stuart McArthur that debuted in 1979 with a reversal of north and south.

There is, of course, no geological or astrophysical reason why north should be up, and the reversal of the poles asks us to call into question the biases inherent to a traditional north-up orientation.

McArthur's Universal Corrective Map

Unprojected Longitude / Latitude

Since longitude and latitude represent x/y coordinates, they can be directly graphed on a grid, and this is the default when you open an unprojected feature class in ArcGIS Pro. However, because longitudes are closer together the further the further north you go from the Equator, the shapes of areas are flattened.

Unprojected longitude and latitude is useful for diagnosing problems with data, but should not be used in any professional presentation, as it implies carelessness or ignorance of cartographic principles and standards.

Unprojected Latitude and Longitude

Common Large Country and Continent Projected Coordinate Systems

Albers Equal Area Conic

Albers Equal Area Conic is a common projection for maps of the continental United States that has historically been used by the United States Geological Society (USGS). It was developed by Heinrich C. Albers in 1805.

Albers Equal Area Conic Projection for North America (EPSG 102008)

This is an example of a conic projection that is equivalent to wrapping the developable surface as a cone around the planet in a way that intersects the surface of the earth in one or two places, which are called standard parallels. This projection is an equal-area projection preserves area while slightly distorting shape. The selection of standard parallels can be based on which part of the earth is the point of focus.

Conic Projection

Lambert Conformal Conic

The Lambert Conformal Conic is another conic projection commonly used for the continental United States. While it distorts area, it preserves shapes better, and since it preserves angles (conformal) it is commonly used for aeronautical charts since a straight line on the map approximates the shortest-path great-circle distance between two points. It was first developed an published by Swiss cartographer Johann Heinrich Lambert in 1772.

Lambert Conformal Conic Projection with Texas in the Center (EPSG 3082)

Common Local Projected Coordinate Systems

While projections for world or country maps are primarily focused on presentation or navigation, projections at the local level are more important for the ability to accurately find specific locations and measure distances, such as when surveying property lines or engaging in military activity.

State Plane Coordinate System

The State Plane Coordinate System is a set of projections commonly used by local and state governments in the USA. The projections are based on Lambert Conic or Transverse Mercator projections that are conformal.

There are 124 different zones in different parts of the US. They can be oriented with the long side of the zone going east-west (for example, Iowa's zones are Conic) or north-south (Illinois' zones are Transverse Mercator).

The small size of these zones means that distortion of distance can be greatly minimized to 1 part in 10,000. You can measure a distance of two miles within around a foot of accuracy

There are a number of different versions of the State Plane Coordinate System based on different geographic coordinate systems (datums) that have been used over the past century (NAD27, NAD83, HARN, CORS96, NSRS2007), and you should choose the version most commonly used in your organization.

If you have a choice and high accuracy is not an issue (such as for simple cartographic representations), the easiest option is the NAD83 variant.

State Plane Coordinate System Zones

The State Plane Coordinate Systems treat the earth as a flat plane (hence, the name) and can therefore be conveniently used for calculating distance.

The example below uses two points in Chicago: The Sears Tower (41.8789, -87.6358) and the Cloud Gate sculpture in Millennium Park (41.882686, -87.623325). Chicago is in the Illinois East State Plane Coordinate System zone, and the WKID for the coordinate system in US feet is EPSG 3435.

The easting in a State Plane projection is the position east-west (similar to longitude), and the northing is the location north-south (similar to latitude). Because this is a US Feet State Plane variant, those numbers are in feet.

Using ArcGIS Pro as shown in the video, you can change the map projection to State Plane and then get the northing and easting for each point. By subtracting to get the east-west distance and the north-south distance between the points, you get the two sides of a triangle. You can then use the Pythagorean theorem to calculate the Euclidean distance (hypotenuse) between the two points in feet.

Note that you cannot do this with latitudes and longitudes because those are angular measurements, and the ground distance represented by a degree is different on different parts of the planet.

Sears Tower: 1174208 East, 1899233 North
Cloud Gate: 1177593 East, 1900640 North

East/west distance = 1177593 - 1174208 = 3385 feet apart east/west
North/south distance = 1900640 - 1899233 = 1407 feet apart north/south

square_root(3385^2 + 1407^2) = square_root(11458225 + 1979649) = 3666 feet
Distance Calculation Using Northings and Eastings
Getting SPCS Eastings and Northings in ArcGIS Pro

Universal Transverse Mercator

Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) is a coordinate system based on the Mercator projection and used as an alternative to latitude and longitude. It was devised by the US Army Corps of Engineeers in the 1940s to make land navigation easier and is still used as the basis for the military's Military Grid Reference System.

Unlike the State Plane Coordinate System, this set of projections covers the world, as befits an organization like the US military that has operations all over the world.

The world is divided into zones and the coordinates within each zone are specified in meters. Because the projection preserves distance (conformal) and the distortions of distance within small areas on a Mercator are minimal, distance calculations are easier when conducting military operations within fairly small areas.

UTM Zones

Transverse Mercator is based on a cylindrical wrapping of the developable surface around the planet like the Mercator. However, the wrapping is around the poles (transverse) rather than around the Equator (equatorial), so the zones of minimal distortion cover broad swaths of area that can be used as battle spaces.

Transverse Cylindrical Projection