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North American datums

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Last modified November 9, 2006
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The two horizontal datums used almost exclusively in North America are NAD 1927 and NAD 1983.

Learn more about datums

NAD 1927

NAD 1927 uses the Clarke 1866 spheroid to represent the shape of the earth. The origin of this datum is a point on the earth referred to as Meades Ranch in Kansas. Many NAD 1927 control points were calculated from observations taken in the 1800s. These calculations were done manually and in sections over many years. Therefore, errors varied from station to station.

NAD 1983

Many technological advances in surveying and geodesy—electronic theodolites, global positioning system (GPS) satellites, Very Long Baseline Interferometry, and Doppler systems—revealed weaknesses in the existing network of control points. Differences became particularly noticeable when linking existing control with newly established surveys. The establishment of a new datum allowed a single datum to cover consistently North America and surrounding areas.

The North American Datum of 1983 is based on both earth and satellite observations, using the GRS 1980 spheroid. The origin for this datum is the earth's center of mass. This affects the surface location of all longitude–latitude values enough to cause locations of previous control points in North America to shift, sometimes as much as 500 feet. A 10-year multinational effort tied together a network of control points for the United States, Canada, Mexico, Greenland, Central America, and the Caribbean.

The GRS 1980 spheroid is almost identical to the WGS 1984 spheroid. The WGS 1984 and NAD 1983 coordinate systems are both earth centered. Because both are so close, NAD 1983 is compatible with GPS data. The raw GPS data is actually reported in the WGS 1984 coordinate system.


There is an ongoing effort at the state level to readjust the NAD 1983 datum to a higher level of accuracy using state-of-the-art surveying techniques that were not widely available when the NAD 1983 datum was being developed. This effort, known as the High Accuracy Reference Network (HARN), or High Precision Geodetic Network (HPGN), is a cooperative project between the National Geodetic Survey and the individual states.

Currently, all states have been resurveyed, but not all of the data has been released to the public. As of January 2004, the grids for 46 states and four territories have been published.

Other United States datums

Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and some Alaskan islands have used other datums besides NAD 1927. New data is referenced to NAD 1983.
Learn more about geographic transformation methods

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