Coordinate Systems in R

For this exercise, we’ll load a sample shapefile into our current working directory (you might want to create a temporary folder for this exercise and set it as the working directory via the Session >> Set Working Directory >> Choose Directory pull-down menu from the RStudio interface).

tmp <- tempfile()
              destfile = tmp)
unzip(tmp, exdir = ".")

Next, we’ll convert the shapefile into an R spatial object using readOGR (note that maptools could also be used to create an R spatial object but unlike readOGR it will not load the GIS file’s coordinate system).

s1 <- readOGR(".", "Income_schooling") # CS is read and stored
OGR data source with driver: ESRI Shapefile 
Source: ".", layer: "Income_schooling"
with 16 features
It has 5 fields

Checking for a coordinate system

The summary function can be used to pull the coordinate system information (if present) but to extract just the coordinate system information, use proj4string instead–it’s part of the sp package that was automatically loaded with the rgdal package in an earlier step.

[1] "+proj=utm +zone=19 +datum=NAD83 +units=m +no_defs +ellps=GRS80 +towgs84=0,0,0"

Object s1 has a CS. It’s made up of a multi-parameter string whose syntax is briefly discussed next.

Understanding the coordinate syntax

Coordinate systems are defined in R using a syntax created by the PROJ4 project. It consists of a list of parameters, each prefixed with the + character. For example, s1’s CS is in a UTM projection (+proj=utm) for zone 19 (+zone=19) and an NAD 1983 datum (+datum=NAD83). Other bits of information that can be gleaned from the projection string are the units (in meters) and the ellipsoid (GRS80).

A list of a subset of PROJ4 parameters used in defining a CS follows. Click here for a full list of parameters.

+a         Semimajor radius of the ellipsoid axis
+b         Semiminor radius of the ellipsoid axis
+datum     Datum name (see `proj -ld`)
+ellps     Ellipsoid name (see `proj -le`)
+lat_0     Latitude of origin
+lat_1     Latitude of first standard parallel
+lat_2     Latitude of second standard parallel
+lat_ts    Latitude of true scale
+lon_0     Central meridian
+over      Allow longitude output outside -180 to 180 range, disables wrapping (see below)
+proj      Projection name (see `proj -l`)
+south     Denotes southern hemisphere UTM zone
+units     meters, US survey feet, etc.
+x_0       False easting
+y_0       False northing
+zone      UTM zone

Assigning a coordinate system

A CS definition can be passed to a spatial object. It can either fill a spatial object’s empty CS definition or it can overwrite and existing definition (the latter should only be executed if there is good reason to believe that the original definition is erroneous). Note that this step does not change an objects underlying coordinate system (this option will be discussed in the next section).

We’ll pretend that a CS definition was not assigned to s1 and assign one manually.

proj4string(s1) <- CRS("+proj=utm +zone=19 +ellps=GRS80 +datum=NAD83")

Note that we do not need to define all of the parameters so long as we know that the default values for these unused parameters are correct. Also note that we do not need to designate a hemisphere since the NAD83 datum applies only to North America.

To recreate a CS defined in a piece of software such as ArcGIS, it is best to extract the CS’ WKID/EPSG code then use that number to lookup the PROJ4 syntax on For example, in ArcGIS, the WKID number can be extracted from the coordinate system properties output.

An ArcGIS dataframe coordinate system properties window. Note the WKID/EPSG code of 26919 (highlighted in red) associated with the NAD 1983 UTM Zone 19 N CS.

Figure 14.19: An ArcGIS dataframe coordinate system properties window. Note the WKID/EPSG code of 26919 (highlighted in red) associated with the NAD 1983 UTM Zone 19 N CS.

That number can then be entered in’s search box to pull the Proj4 parameters (note that you must select Proj4 from the list of syntax options).

Example of a search result for EPSG **26919** at []( Note that after clicking the `EPSG:269191` link, you must then select the Proj4 syntax from a list of available syntaxes to view the projection parameters

Figure 14.20: Example of a search result for EPSG 26919 at Note that after clicking the EPSG:269191 link, you must then select the Proj4 syntax from a list of available syntaxes to view the projection parameters

Here are examples of a few common projections:

Projection WKID Authority Syntax
UTM NAD 83 Zone 19N 26919 EPSG +proj=utm +zone=19 +ellps=GRS80 +datum=NAD83 +units=m +no_defs
USA Contiguous albers equal area 102003 ESRI +proj=aea +lat_1=29.5 +lat_2=45.5 +lat_0=37.5 +lon_0=-96 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=GRS80 +datum=NAD83 +units=m +no_defs
Alaska albers equal area 3338 EPSG +proj=aea +lat_1=55 +lat_2=65 +lat_0=50 +lon_0=-154 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=GRS80 +datum=NAD83 +units=m +no_defs
World Robinson 54030 ESRI +proj=robin +lon_0=0 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=WGS84 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs

Modifying coordinate systems

The last step showed you how to define or modify the coordinate system definition. This section shows you how to transform the coordinate values associated with the spatial object to a different coordinate system. For example, to transform s1 to a geographic (lat/long) coordinate system use the spTransform function.

s1.gcs <- spTransform(s1, CRS("+proj=longlat +datum=WGS84"))

Let’s explore s1.gcs’s summary.

Object of class SpatialPolygonsDataFrame
        min       max
x -71.08751 -66.96927
y  43.09105  47.45333
Is projected: FALSE 
proj4string :
[+proj=longlat +datum=WGS84 +ellps=WGS84 +towgs84=0,0,0]
Data attributes:
           NAME        Income         NoSchool          NoSchoolSE       
 Androscoggin: 1   Min.   :20015   Min.   :0.002390   Min.   :0.0006832  
 Aroostook   : 1   1st Qu.:21631   1st Qu.:0.004907   1st Qu.:0.0009130  
 Cumberland  : 1   Median :23788   Median :0.005252   Median :0.0010281  
 Franklin    : 1   Mean   :24716   Mean   :0.005778   Mean   :0.0011658  
 Hancock     : 1   3rd Qu.:27897   3rd Qu.:0.006603   3rd Qu.:0.0013404  
 Kennebec    : 1   Max.   :32549   Max.   :0.013387   Max.   :0.0021290  
 (Other)     :10                                                         
 Min.   :242.4  
 1st Qu.:342.6  
 Median :455.8  
 Mean   :458.8  
 3rd Qu.:551.5  
 Max.   :724.2  

Note the new coordinate system definition, but also note the new min and max extent values have changed to reflect the new CS units (degrees latitude and longitude). You’ll also note the Is projected: FALSE output that reminds us that a geographic coordinate system is a not a projected coordinate system (i.e. projected onto a cartesian coordinate system).

A geographic coordinate system is often desired when overlapping a web based mapping service such as Google, Bing or OpenStreetMap. To check that s1.gcs was properly transformed, we’ll overlay it on top of an OpenStreetMap using the leaflet package.

leaflet(s1.gcs) %>% 
  addPolygons() %>% 

It appears that s1.gcs was properly transformed.

Next, we’ll explore other transformations using a built in dataset of the world from the maptools package.


# Let's check it's current coordinate system
[1] " +proj=longlat +ellps=WGS84 +datum=WGS84 +no_defs +towgs84=0,0,0"
# Let's check its extent
   min       max
x -180 180.00000
y  -90  83.57027

The following chunk transforms the worl map to an Azimuthal equidistant projection centered on latitude 0 and longitude 0. <- spTransform(wrld_simpl, CRS("+proj=aeqd +lat_0=0 +lon_0=0 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=WGS84 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs"))

qtm( + tm_layout(frame = FALSE) 

The following chunk transforms the worl map to an Azimuthal equidistant projection centered on Maine.

wrld_simpl.aemaine <- spTransform(wrld_simpl, CRS("+proj=aeqd +lat_0=44.5 +lon_0=-69.8 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=WGS84 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs"))

qtm(wrld_simpl.aemaine)  + tm_layout(frame = FALSE) 

The following chunk transforms the worl map to a World Robinson projection.

wrld_simpl.robin <- spTransform(wrld_simpl, CRS("+proj=robin +lon_0=0 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=WGS84 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs"))
qtm(wrld_simpl.robin) + tm_style_natural() + tm_layout(frame = FALSE)

The following chunk transforms the worl map to a World sinusoidal projection.

wrld_simpl.sin <- spTransform(wrld_simpl, CRS("+proj=sinu +lon_0=0 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=WGS84 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs"))
qtm(wrld_simpl.sin) + tm_layout(frame = FALSE)

Example of failed transformations

As of maptools version 0.8-39, the following projection will generate an error.

# Mercator world (54004)
wrld_simpl.mercator <- spTransform(wrld_simpl, CRS("+proj=merc +lon_0=0 +k=1 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=WGS84 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs"))
non finite transformation detected:
     [,1] [,2] [,3] [,4]
Error in .spTransform_Polygon(input[[i]], to_args = to_args, from_args = from_args,  : 
  failure in Polygons 145 Polygon 1 points 
In addition: Warning message:
In .spTransform_Polygon(input[[i]], to_args = to_args, from_args = from_args,  :
  2 projected point(s) not finite

The error suggests that there is a problem with (at least) one of the polygons–polygon 145. We’ll create a function that will loop through each spatial element (polygon) and attempt a transformation to confirm that polygon 145 is indeed the sole problematic polygon.

prob.poly <- function(s){
  n.poly <- length(s@polygons)
  crd    <- "+proj=merc +lon_0=0 +k=1 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=WGS84 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs"
  for (i in 1:n.poly){
    t1 <- wrld_simpl[i, ]
    tryCatch(t1.merc <- spTransform(t1, CRS(crd)),
             error = function(e){print(sprintf("Could not project polygon %i", i))},
             warning = function(w){})

Now apply the function to the wrld_simpl object.

# Run function with data

Polygon 145 is indeed the lone problematic shape. Let’s plot it in its native coordinate system.

qtm(wrld_simpl[145, ] )

The problematic polygon covers Antarctica. Let’s transform all polygons except polygon 145.

wrld_simpl.mercator <- spTransform(wrld_simpl[-145,], CRS("+proj=merc +lon_0=0 +k=1 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=WGS84 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs"))

qtm(wrld_simpl.mercator) + tm_style_natural() + tm_layout(frame = FALSE)

This works, but we loose a large polygon. One possible solution is to clean the polygon’s geometry inside of R or in a GIS software such as QGIS or ArcMap. This step is not covered here but can be found via many online resources.

Another issue that can come up when transforming spatial data is when the location of the tangent line(s) or point in the CS definition forces polygon features to split across the 180° meridian. For example, re-centering the mercator projection to -69° will create the following map.

wrld_simpl.mercator <- spTransform(wrld_simpl[-145,], CRS("+proj=merc +lon_0=-69 +k=1 +x_0=0 +y_0=0 +ellps=WGS84 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs"))


The polygons are split and R does not know how to piece them together. Unfortunately, there are no easy workarounds to this other than converting the polygon to a polyline, splitting, and then rebuilding the polygon. Another solution is to convert the vector object to a raster then reproject the raster.