Dateline:  Abbottabad, Pakistan. 1 May 2011. [About 14:00hrs EDT in Washington DC.]

All was quiet in the household.

Suddenly, low whirring sounds. All hell broke loose. Loud gunfire outside. Within minutes, the head of the household, his adult son, the brother of a courier, and the courier’s wife lay dead.

Operation Neptune Spear was soon over.

A lot hinged on knowledge and application of that dreadfully boring chapter you had to endure in geography class: latitudes and longitudes. Among many other geographical things. But you didn’t die because of it – merely bored to tears, perhaps!

We get latitude from the Latin latitudo, breadth – these lines are broad, horizontal. Longitude comes from the Latin longitudo, length; this is vertical.

Longitudes are also called meridians. We get meridian from the Latin meridianus meaning noon; that is when the Sun is directly overhead (i.e., it is noon) at a given longitude. So, longitudes are related to time. If you know which longitude you are on, and if you go strictly by natural rules, for every degree of longitude west of you, you deduct 1 minute of time, and for every degree of longitude east of you, you add 1 minute of time. This is called local time in geography. Pakistan would have different local times in different parts of the country based on longitude. Therefore, they decided to have one time (Pakistan Standard Time – PKT) for all of Pakistan based on one chosen location: Islamabad (33°4’N 73°08’E). All countries have one or more standard times.

Longitude and local political decisions about them, taken decades earlier, helped keep track of the time in Jalalabad (Afghanistan) Washington DC (USA), and Abbottabad (Pakistan). Timing was crucial.

Location of the house

The Americans had deployed (and continue to deploy) unmanned aircraft called drones. They also have satellites in the sky watching over a lot of things going on on Earth. Also, their local spies on the ground had told them at Osama bin Laden lived in this house in Abbottabad.

The satellites tracked the courier’s movements. Drones, flying very high overhead, sent back live video of this house night and day for weeks. The satellites and the drones gave the exact latitude and longitude (coordinates) of the house.

A very special feature of these lines is particularly useful for us: any latitude and any longitude intersect each other only once. So, if you know which latitude intersects which longitude at any place, you know its unique geographic location. No two places in the world have the same exact coordinates. So, Osama’s coordinates: 34°10′09″N 73°14′33″E – i.e., where 34°10′09″North latitude intersects 73°14′33″East longitude intersect.

Still think those “imaginary lines” are boring and useless?

Later, I’ll tell you about less violent uses of latitudes and longitudes.

Explore further …

  1. What was the standard time and date in London (UK), Abbottabad, Jalalabad, and Mysore when Operation Neptune Spear was executed at the compound? (Online option)
  2. The exact location of Osama’s hideout.
  3.  On world map, mark the times, places, coordinates, and sequence of events given in this story. More information online, if you like.
  4. What other human and natural geography factors did the Americans have to consider for this operation?
  5. In that pitch dark, how did they know when they had crossed the Afghanistan-Pakistan border?

(A version of this post was published in Deccan Herald Student Edition, 24 June 2013, page 1.)


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