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Difference Between WGS84 and EPSG:4326

What is the Difference Between WGS84 and EPSG:4326?

In the world of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), terms like WGS84 and EPSG:4326 are frequently thrown around. But what do they mean, and how do they differ from one another? Let’s dive deep into these terms and demystify the difference between WGS84 and EPSG:4326.

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WGS84: More Than Just Coordinates

WGS84, which stands for World Geodetic System 1984, is a global reference system used for geospatial information. It provides a standard coordinate frame for the Earth, ensuring that coordinates from different sources can be integrated and used in a consistent manner. At its core, WGS84 defines a datum/reference ellipsoid for raw altitude data.

EPSG:4326: The Identifier

EPSG:4326, on the other hand, is essentially an identifier for WGS84. In simple terms, 4326 is the code that the European Petroleum Survey Group (EPSG) assigned to WGS84. However, there’s more to it. EPSG:4326 defines a full coordinate reference system, providing spatial meaning to pairs of numbers. This means it interprets “latitude and longitude coordinates on the WGS84 reference ellipsoid.”

The Nuances

While the terms are often used interchangeably, there are subtle differences:

  1. Axis Order: The GeoJSON coordinate system is WGS84, but it is not EPSG:4326. This is because there’s a difference in axis order between the two.
  2. Reference System: EPSG 4326 provides a full coordinate reference system, adding depth to the otherwise simple pairs of numbers. WGS84, in some contexts, can refer just to the ellipsoid.
  3. Database vs. Datum: WGS84 is a datum, a reference from which measurements are made. EPSG, however, is a database of Coordinate Reference Systems (CRS) and related information. It assigns codes to various geodetic parameters, ensuring that coordinates describe positions unambiguously.

Can I use WGS84 and EPSG:4326 interchangeably in my GIS project?

Yes, you can use them interchangeably when:

  1. Referring to the Datum: WGS84 is a datum, and EPSG:4326 is a coordinate reference system based on the WGS84 datum. If you’re only referring to the datum, then they can be used interchangeably.
  2. Working with Software that Recognizes Both as Equivalent: Many GIS software and tools treat WGS84 and EPSG:4326 as equivalent due to their close relationship, so for many practical purposes, they can be used interchangeably.

No, you shouldn’t use them interchangeably when:

  1. Considering Axis Order: In some contexts, especially in certain software or data formats like GeoJSON, the axis order matters. WGS84 traditionally uses latitude-longitude, while EPSG:4326 is defined as longitude-latitude. Misinterpreting this can lead to swapped coordinates.
  2. Dealing with Precise Geospatial Analysis: For high-precision tasks, it’s essential to be clear about the reference system you’re using. Even minor discrepancies can lead to significant errors over large areas or distances.
  3. Communicating with Other Professionals: To avoid confusion, it’s always best to be specific about which system or reference you’re using, especially when collaborating with others or sharing data.

In Conclusion:

While WGS84 and EPSG:4326 are closely related and often treated as equivalent in many GIS contexts, they are not strictly the same. It’s essential to understand the nuances and be aware of the potential pitfalls of using them interchangeably without considering the context. Always ensure that the software, tools, or platforms you’re using recognize them in the way you intend.

About the Author
I'm Daniel O'Donohue, the voice and creator behind The MapScaping Podcast ( A podcast for the geospatial community ). With a professional background as a geospatial specialist, I've spent years harnessing the power of spatial to unravel the complexities of our world, one layer at a time.