Two levels of abstraction are employed in the definition of latitude and longitude. In the first step the physical surface is modeled by the geoid, a surface which approximates the mean sea level over the oceans and its continuation under the land masses. The second step is to approximate the geoid by a mathematically simpler reference surface. The simplest choice for the reference surface is a sphere, but the geoid is more accurately modeled by an ellipsoid. The definitions of latitude and longitude on such reference surfaces are detailed in the following sections. Lines of constant latitude and longitude together constitute a graticule on the reference surface. The latitude of a point on the actual surface is that of the corresponding point on the reference surface, the correspondence being along the normal to the reference surface which passes through the point on the physical surface. Latitude and longitude together with some specification of height constitute a geographic coordinate system as defined in the specification of the ISO 19111 standard.
Since there are many different reference ellipsoids, the precise latitude of a feature on the surface is not unique: this is stressed in the ISO standard which states that "without the full specification of the coordinate reference system, coordinates (that is latitude and longitude) are ambiguous at best and meaningless at worst". This is of great importance in accurate applications, such as a Global Positioning System (GPS), but in common usage, where high accuracy is not required, the reference ellipsoid is not usually stated.
In English texts the latitude angle, defined below, is usually denoted by the Greek lower-case letter phi (φ or ϕ). It is measured in degrees, minutes and seconds or decimal degrees, north or south of the equator.
The precise measurement of latitude requires an understanding of the gravitational field of the Earth, either to set up theodolites or to determine GPS satellite orbits. The study of the figure of the Earth together with its gravitational field is the science of geodesy.
This article relates to coordinate systems for the Earth: it may be extended to cover the Moon, planets and other celestial objects by a simple change of nomenclature.