Three ways to calculate distances in R

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Three ways to calculate distances in R

Calculating a distance on a map sounds straightforward, but it can be
confusing how many different ways there are to do this in R.

This complexity arises because there are different ways of defining
‘distance’ on the Earth’s surface.

The Earth is spherical. So do you want to calculate distances around the
sphere (‘great circle distances’) or distances on a map (‘Euclidean

Then there are barriers. For example, for distances in the ocean, we
often want to know the nearest distance around islands.

Then there is the added complexity of the different spatial data types.
Here we will just look at points, but these same concepts apply to other
data types, like shapes.

Example data

Let’s look at some example data. It is just a series of points across
the island of Tasmania. We are going to calculate how far apart these
points are from each other.

We’ll use sf for spatial data and tmap for mapping.

Here’s a map:

tm_shape(stas) +
  tm_polygons() +
  tm_graticules(col = "grey60") +
  tm_shape(pts) +
  tm_symbols(col = "black") +
  tm_scale_bar(position = c("left", "bottom")) +
  tm_shape(pts) +
  tm_text("pt", ymod = -1)

Note I’ve included a scale bar, but of course the distance between
longitude lines gets closer at higher latitudes.

Great circle distances

The first method is to calculate great circle distances, that account
for the curvature of the earth. If we use st_distance() with
unprojected coordinates (ie in lon-lat) then we get great circle
distances (in metres).

m <- st_distance(pts)

## Units: [m]
##          [,1]     [,2]      [,3]
## [1,]    0.000 821.5470 1200.7406
## [2,]  821.547   0.0000  419.5004
## [3,] 1200.741 419.5004    0.0000

The matrix m gives the distances between points (we divided by 1000 to
get distances in KM).

Euclidean distances

Another option is to first project the points to a projection that
preserves distances and then calculate the distances. This option is
computationally faster, but can be less accurate, as we will see.

We will use the local UTM projection. So you can see what this looks
like, we will project the land too.

tas_utm <- st_crs("+proj=utm +zone=55 +datum=WGS84 +units=m +no_defs")
stas2 <- st_transform(stas, crs = tas_utm)
pts2 <- st_transform(pts, crs = tas_utm)

tm_shape(stas2) +
  tm_polygons() +
  tm_graticules(col = "grey60") +
  tm_shape(pts2) +
  tm_symbols(col = "black") +
  tm_scale_bar(position = c("left", "bottom")) +
  tm_shape(pts) +
  tm_text("pt", ymod = -1)

Note how it now bends the lat/long lines. This happens because we are
projecting a sphere onto a flat surface. The UTM will be most accurate
at the centre of its zone (we used Zone 55 which is approximately
centred on Tasmania).

If we were interested in mapping the mainland of Australia accurately,
we’d use a different UTM zone.

Now we can calculate Euclidean distances:

m2 <- st_distance(pts2)

## Units: [m]
##           [,1]     [,2]      [,3]
## [1,]    0.0000 824.8996 1203.6228
## [2,]  824.8996   0.0000  419.4163
## [3,] 1203.6228 419.4163    0.0000

Compare these to our great circle distances:


## Units: [m]
##          [,1]     [,2]      [,3]
## [1,]    0.000 821.5470 1200.7406
## [2,]  821.547   0.0000  419.5004
## [3,] 1200.741 419.5004    0.0000

Note the slight differences, particularly between point 1 and the other
points. The first method (great circle) is the more accurate one, but is
also a bit slower. The Euclidean distances become a bit inaccurate for
point 1, because it is so far outside the zone of the UTM projection.

Points 2 & 3 are within the UTM zone, so the distance between these
points is almost identical to the great circle calculation.

Distances around a barrier

The basic idea here is that we turn the data into a raster grid and then
use the gridDistance() function to calculate distances around barriers
(land) between points.

So first we need to rasterize the land. The package fasterize has a
fast way to turn sf polygons into land:

r <- raster(extent(stas2), nrows = 50, ncols = 50)
rtas <- fasterize(summarize(stas2), r)

I made the raster pretty blocky (50 x 50). You could increase the
resolution to improve the accuracy of the distance measurements. Here’s
how it looks:

Now we need to identify the raster cell’s where the points fall. We do
this by extracting coordinates from pts2 and asking for their unique
raster cell numbers:

rtas_pts <- rtas
xy <- st_coordinates(pts2)
icell <- cellFromXY(rtas, xy)

Now, we set the cells of our raster corresponding to the points to a
different number than the rest. I will just use the 3rd point (if we
used all points then we get nearest distance around barriers to any

rtas_pts[icell[3]] <- 2

This will look like the same raster, but with a spot where the 3rd point
fell (note red box):

Now just run gridDistance telling it to calculate distances from the
cells with a value of 2 (just one cell in this case) and omit values
of 1 (land) when doing the distances:

d <- gridDistance(rtas_pts, origin = 2,
                  omit = 1)/1000

This will be slow for larger rasters (or very high res). Let’s see how
it looks:

Colours correspond to distances from point 3 (the location we gave a value of ‘2’ to in the raster).

Now we can just ask for the distance values at the cells of the other


## [1] 1310.5141  612.1404    0.0000

So 612 km around Tasmania from point 3 to 2, as the dolphin swims. It
was only 419 km if we could fly straight over Tasmania:


## 419.5004 [m]

(note is says metres, but that is because R hasn’t remembered we’ve
divided by 1000)

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