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Also see WGS84

Geodetic datums define the size and shape of the earth and the origin and orientation of the coordinate systems used to map the earth. Hundreds of different datums have been used to frame position descriptions since the first estimates of the earth's size were made by Aristotle.

Datums have evolved from those describing a spherical earth to ellipsoidal models derived from years of satellite measurements.

Modern geodetic datums range from flat-earth models used for plane surveying to complex models used for international applications which completely describe the size, shape, orientation, gravity field, and angular velocity of the earth. While cartography, surveying, navigation, and astronomy all make use of geodetic datums, the science of geodesy is the central discipline for the topic.

Referencing geodetic coordinates to the wrong datum can result in position errors of hundreds of meters. Different nations and agencies use different datums as the basis for coordinate systems used to identify positions in geographic information systems, precise positioning systems, and navigation systems. The diversity of datums in use today and the technological advancements that have made possible global positioning measurements with sub-meter accuracies requires careful datum selection and careful conversion between coordinates in different datums.

Peter H. Dana, The Geographer's Craft Project, Department of Geography, The University of Colorado at Boulder