Pondering the concept of North got me thinking about analyzing my own understanding of North over the course of my life. So I decided to map the places I’ve lived for extended periods of time and the northward orienting objects that provide the framework for defining what is “North” in those cities. I’ve chosen to capitalize North in this piece to distinguish from geodetic north, sometimes called “true north.”
Olympia, Washington, USA
If you can see Mt. Rainier and it's on your right then your heading North.
At left is a map reflecting my understanding North for nearly a decade. And at right is how Olympia looks with orientation towards geodetic north. The 15 degree shift west places Mt. Rainier directly to the east.
Seattle, Washington, USA
The Sound (Puget Sound) is west, look to your right and that’s North.
At left is a rotated map of Seattle that shows North based on it’s orientation to coastline the Sound in downtown Seattle. At right is Seattle mapped to geodetic north. The slight two degree shift west is practically imperceptible.
New York City, New York, USA
Uptown is North. If you’re in Queens and you can see Manhattan’s skyline that’s west so turn right and you are facing North. If you’re in Brooklyn look at the subway map, good luck to you. If you’re in the Bronx then look away from the rest of the city and that’s North.
NYC rotated with Uptown as North at left. NYC mapped aligned with geodetic north at right. It's a pretty dramatic 28 degree shift to the west but since it was set in 1811 people have been using the Manhattan grid to align themselves northward.
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Downtown and the St. Lawrence River is south of the Mountain, away from Downtown is North. You can live east or west of the mountain.
Map of Montreal with North oriented based on Mount Royal and the old city/Downtown districts at left. Map of the city based on geodetic north at right. This one is by far the most extreme rotation, at 42 degrees east, compared to the other cities so I'm still trying to orient my mental city map with this one.
In summary North has shifted back and forth around geodetic north for much of my life.
I’ve made sure to map all these places using a local projection system but the same geographic coordinate system as a base, the North American Datum of 1983. We can discuss projections another time but suffice it to say they are a way to minimize spatial distortions that occur when you take the 3D sphere that is the earth and remove a dimension to put it onto 2D paper/digital screens. And most maps, which are projected, reflect another version of north called grid north. You didn’t know it but most of the time you’re living a projected spatial understanding of North, whether it’s “official”, local, or personal. North is a social construct.