Document Type



Environmental Sciences


This is the second paper in a four-part series considering the fundamental question, “what does the word height really mean?” The first paper in this series explained that a change in National Geodetic Survey’s policy, coupled with the modern realities of GPS surveying, have essentially forced practicing surveyors to come to grips with the myriad of height definitions that previously were the sole concern of geodesists. The distinctions between local and equipotential ellipsoids were considered, along with an introduction to mean sea level. This paper brings these ideas forward by explaining mean sea level and, more importantly, the geoid. The discussion is grounded in physics from which gravitational force and potential energy will be considered, leading to a simple derivation of the shape of the Earth’s gravity field. This lays the foundation for a simplistic model of the geoid near Mt. Everest, which will be used to explain the undulations in the geoid across the entire Earth. The terms geoid, plumb line, potential, equipotential surface, geopotential number, and mean sea level will be explained, including a discussion of why mean sea level is not everywhere the same height; why it is not a level surface.


Published in Surveying and Land Information Science, Vol. 65, No. 1, pp. 5-15.
See Part I and Part III of this four-part series.