Figure of the Earth

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Figure of the Earth is a term of art in geodesy that refers to the size and shape used to model Earth. The size and shape it refers to depend on context, including the precision needed for the model. The sphere is an approximation of the figure of the Earth that is satisfactory for many purposes. Several models with greater accuracy have been developed so that coordinate systems can serve the precise needs of navigation, surveying, cadastre, land use, and various other concerns.



Earth's topographic surface is apparent with its variety of land forms and water areas. This topographic surface is generally the concern of topographers, hydrographers, and geophysicists. While it is the surface on which Earth measurements are made, mathematically modeling it while taking the irregularities into account would be extremely complicated.

The Pythagorean concept of a spherical Earth offers a simple surface that is easy to deal with mathematically. Many astronomical and navigational computations use a sphere to model the Earth as a close approximation. However, a more accurate figure is needed for measuring distances and areas on the scale beyond the purely local. Better approximations can be had by modeling the entire surface as an oblate spheroid, using spherical harmonics to approximate the geoid, or modeling a region with a best-fit reference ellipsoid.

For surveys of small areas, a planar (flat) model of Earth's surface suffices because the local topography overwhelms the curvature. Plane-table surveys are made for relatively small areas without considering the size and shape of the entire Earth. A survey of a city, for example, might be conducted this way.

By the late 1600s, serious effort was devoted to modeling the Earth as an ellipsoid, beginning with Jean Picard's measurement of a degree of arc along the Paris meridian. Improved maps and better measurement of distances and areas of national territories motivated these early attempts. Surveying instrumentation and techniques improved over the ensuing centuries. Models for the figure of the earth improved in step.

In the mid- to late 20th century, research across the geosciences contributed to drastic improvements in the accuracy of the figure of the Earth. The primary utility of this improved accuracy was to provide geographical and gravitational data for the inertial guidance systems of ballistic missiles. This funding also drove the expansion of geoscientific disciplines, fostering the creation and growth of various geoscience departments at many universities. [1] These developments benefited many civilian pursuits as well, such as weather and communication satellite control and GPS location-finding, which would be impossible without highly accurate models for the figure of the Earth.


The models for the figure of the Earth vary in the way they are used, in their complexity, and in the accuracy with which they represent the size and shape of the Earth.


A view across a 20-km-wide bay in the coast of Spain. The curvature of the Earth is evident in the horizon across the image, and the bases of the buildings on the far shore are below that horizon and hidden by the sea. Horizon, Valencia (Spain).JPG
A view across a 20-km-wide bay in the coast of Spain. The curvature of the Earth is evident in the horizon across the image, and the bases of the buildings on the far shore are below that horizon and hidden by the sea.

The simplest model for the shape of the entire Earth is a sphere. The Earth's radius is the distance from Earth's center to its surface, about 6,371 km (3,959 mi). While "radius" normally is a characteristic of perfect spheres, the Earth deviates from spherical by only a third of a percent, sufficiently close to treat it as a sphere in many contexts and justifying the term "the radius of the Earth".

The concept of a spherical Earth dates back to around the 6th century BC, [2] but remained a matter of philosophical speculation until the 3rd century BC. The first scientific estimation of the radius of the Earth was given by Eratosthenes about 240 BC, with estimates of the accuracy of Eratosthenes's measurement ranging from -1% to 15%.

The Earth is only approximately spherical, so no single value serves as its natural radius. Distances from points on the surface to the center range from 6,353 km (3,948 mi) to 6,384 km (3,967 mi). Several different ways of modeling the Earth as a sphere each yield a mean radius of 6,371 km (3,959 mi). Regardless of the model, any radius falls between the polar minimum of about 6,357 km (3,950 mi) and the equatorial maximum of about 6,378 km (3,963 mi). The difference 21 km (13 mi) correspond to the polar radius being approximately 0.3% shorter than the equatorial radius.

Ellipsoid of revolution

An oblate spheroid, highly exaggerated relative to the actual Earth OblateSpheroid.PNG
An oblate spheroid, highly exaggerated relative to the actual Earth
A scale diagram of the oblateness of the 2003 IERS reference ellipsoid, with north at the top. The outer edge of the dark blue line is an ellipse with the same eccentricity as that of Earth. For comparison, the light blue circle within has a diameter equal to the ellipse's minor axis. The red curve represents the Karman line 100 km (62 mi) above sea level, while the yellow band denotes the altitude range of the ISS in low Earth orbit. Earth oblateness to scale.svg
A scale diagram of the oblateness of the 2003 IERS reference ellipsoid, with north at the top. The outer edge of the dark blue line is an ellipse with the same eccentricity as that of Earth. For comparison, the light blue circle within has a diameter equal to the ellipse's minor axis. The red curve represents the Karman line 100 km (62 mi) above sea level, while the yellow band denotes the altitude range of the ISS in low Earth orbit.

Since the Earth is flattened at the poles and bulges at the Equator, geodesy represents the figure of the Earth as an oblate spheroid. The oblate spheroid, or oblate ellipsoid, is an ellipsoid of revolution obtained by rotating an ellipse about its shorter axis. It is the regular geometric shape that most nearly approximates the shape of the Earth. A spheroid describing the figure of the Earth or other celestial body is called a reference ellipsoid. The reference ellipsoid for Earth is called an Earth ellipsoid.

An ellipsoid of revolution is uniquely defined by two quantities. Several conventions for expressing the two quantities are used in geodesy, but they are all equivalent to and convertible with each other:

Eccentricity and flattening are different ways of expressing how squashed the ellipsoid is. When flattening appears as one of the defining quantities in geodesy, generally it is expressed by its reciprocal. For example, in the WGS 84 spheroid used by today's GPS systems, the reciprocal of the flattening is set to be exactly 298.257223563.

The difference between a sphere and a reference ellipsoid for Earth is small, only about one part in 300. Historically, flattening was computed from grade measurements. Nowadays, geodetic networks and satellite geodesy are used. In practice, many reference ellipsoids have been developed over the centuries from different surveys. The flattening value varies slightly from one reference ellipsoid to another, reflecting local conditions and whether the reference ellipsoid is intended to model the entire Earth or only some portion of it.

A sphere has a single radius of curvature, which is simply the radius of the sphere. More complex surfaces have radii of curvature that vary over the surface. The radius of curvature describes the radius of the sphere that best approximates the surface at that point. Oblate ellipsoids have constant radius of curvature east to west along parallels, if a graticule is drawn on the surface, but varying curvature in any other direction. For an oblate ellipsoid, the polar radius of curvature is larger than the equatorial

because the pole is flattened: the flatter the surface, the larger the sphere must be to approximate it. Conversely, the ellipsoid's north–south radius of curvature at the equator is smaller than the polar

where is the distance from the center of the ellipsoid to the equator (semi-major axis), and is the distance from the center to the pole. (semi-minor axis)


It was stated earlier that measurements are made on the apparent or topographic surface of the Earth and it has just been explained that computations are performed on an ellipsoid. One other surface is involved in geodetic measurement: the geoid. In geodetic surveying, the computation of the geodetic coordinates of points is commonly performed on a reference ellipsoid closely approximating the size and shape of the Earth in the area of the survey. The actual measurements made on the surface of the Earth with certain instruments are however referred to the geoid. The ellipsoid is a mathematically defined regular surface with specific dimensions. The geoid, on the other hand, coincides with that surface to which the oceans would conform over the entire Earth if free to adjust to the combined effect of the Earth's mass attraction (gravitation) and the centrifugal force of the Earth's rotation. As a result of the uneven distribution of the Earth's mass, the geoidal surface is irregular and, since the ellipsoid is a regular surface, the separations between the two, referred to as geoid undulations, geoid heights, or geoid separations, will be irregular as well.

The geoid is a surface along which the gravity potential is everywhere equal and to which the direction of gravity is always perpendicular (see equipotential surface). The latter is particularly important because optical instruments containing gravity-reference leveling devices are commonly used to make geodetic measurements. When properly adjusted, the vertical axis of the instrument coincides with the direction of gravity and is, therefore, perpendicular to the geoid. The angle between the plumb line which is perpendicular to the geoid (sometimes called "the vertical") and the perpendicular to the ellipsoid (sometimes called "the ellipsoidal normal") is defined as the deflection of the vertical. It has two components: an east–west and a north–south component. [3]

Geoid undulation in false color, shaded relief and vertical exaggeration (10000 scale factor). Geoid undulation 10k scale.jpg
Geoid undulation in false color, shaded relief and vertical exaggeration (10000 scale factor).
Geoid undulation in false color, to scale. Geoid undulation to scale.jpg
Geoid undulation in false color, to scale.

Other shapes

The possibility that the Earth's equator is better characterized as an ellipse rather than a circle and therefore that the ellipsoid is triaxial has been a matter of scientific inquiry for many years. [4] [5] Modern technological developments have furnished new and rapid methods for data collection and, since the launch of Sputnik 1 , orbital data have been used to investigate the theory of ellipticity. [3] More recent results indicate a 70-m difference between the two equatorial major and minor axes of inertia, with the larger semidiameter pointing to 15° W longitude (and also 180-degree away). [6] [7]

A second theory, more complicated than triaxiality, proposed that observed long periodic orbital variations of the first Earth satellites indicate an additional depression at the south pole accompanied by a bulge of the same degree at the north pole. It is also contended that the northern middle latitudes were slightly flattened and the southern middle latitudes bulged in a similar amount. This concept suggested a slightly pear-shaped Earth and was the subject of much public discussion after the launch of the first artificial satellites. [3]

John A. O'Keefe and co-authors are credited with the discovery that the Earth had a significant third degree zonal spherical harmonic in its gravitational field using U.S. Vanguard 1 satellite data collected in the late 1950s. [8] Based on further satellite geodesy data, Desmond King-Hele refined the estimate to a 45-m difference between north and south polar radii, owing to a 19-m "stem" rising in the north pole and a 26-m depression in the south pole. [9] [10] The polar asymmetry is small, though: it is about a thousand times smaller than the earth's flattening and even smaller than the geoidal undulation is some regions of the Earth. [11]

Modern geodesy tends to retain the ellipsoid of revolution as a reference ellipsoid and treat triaxiality and pear shape as a part of the geoid figure: they are represented by the spherical harmonic coefficients and , respectively, corresponding to degree and order numbers 2.2 for the triaxiality and 3.0 for the pear shape.

Local approximations

Simpler local approximations are possible, e.g., osculating sphere and local tangent plane.

Earth rotation and Earth's interior

Determining the exact figure of the Earth is not only a geometric task of geodesy, but also has geophysical considerations. According to theoretical arguments by Isaac Newton, Leonhard Euler, and others, a body having a uniform density of 5.515 g/cm3 that rotates like the Earth should have a flattening of 1:229. This can be concluded without any information about the composition of Earth's interior. [12] However, the measured flattening is 1:298.25, which is closer to a sphere and a strong argument that Earth's core is extremely compact. Therefore, the density must be a function of the depth, ranging from 2.6 g/cm3 at the surface (rock density of granite, etc.), up to 13 g/cm3 within the inner core. [13]

Global and regional gravity field

Also with implications for the physical exploration of the Earth's interior is the gravitational field, which can be measured very accurately at the surface and remotely by satellites. True vertical generally does not correspond to theoretical vertical (deflection ranges up to 50") because topography and all geological masses disturb the gravitational field. Therefore, the gross structure of the earth's crust and mantle can be determined by geodetic-geophysical models of the subsurface.


The volume of the reference ellipsoid is V = 4/3πa2b, where a and b are its semimajor and semiminor axes. Using the parameters from WGS84 ellipsoid of revolution, a = 6,378.137 km and b = 6,356.7523142km, V = 1.08321×1012 km3 (2.5988×1011 cu mi). [14]

See also


Related Research Articles

Geodesy The science of the geometric shape, orientation in space, and gravitational field of Earth

Geodesy is the Earth science of accurately measuring and understanding Earth's geometric shape, orientation in space and gravitational field. The field also incorporates studies of how these properties change over time and equivalent measurements for other planets. Geodynamical phenomena include crustal motion, tides and polar motion, which can be studied by designing global and national control networks, applying space and terrestrial techniques and relying on datums and coordinate systems.

Latitude geographic coordinate specifying north–south position

In geography, latitude is a geographic coordinate that specifies the north–south position of a point on the Earth's surface. Latitude is an angle which ranges from 0° at the Equator to 90° at the poles. Lines of constant latitude, or parallels, run east–west as circles parallel to the equator. Latitude is used together with longitude to specify the precise location of features on the surface of the Earth. On its own, the term latitude should be taken to be the geodetic latitude as defined below. Briefly, geodetic latitude at a point is the angle formed by the vector perpendicular to the ellipsoidal surface from that point, and the equatorial plane. Also defined are six auxiliary latitudes that are used in special applications.

Spheroid Surface formed by rotating an ellipse around one of its axes; special case of ellipsoid

A spheroid, or ellipsoid of revolution, is a quadric surface obtained by rotating an ellipse about one of its principal axes; in other words, an ellipsoid with two equal semi-diameters. A spheroid has circular symmetry.

An equatorial bulge is a difference between the equatorial and polar diameters of a planet, due to the centrifugal force exerted by the rotation about the body's axis. A rotating body tends to form an oblate spheroid rather than a sphere.

Earth radius mean distance from the Earths center to its surface

Earth radius is the distance from the center of Earth to a point on its surface. Its value ranges from 6,378 km (3,963 mi) at the equator to 6,357 km (3,950 mi) at a pole. A nominal Earth radius is sometimes used as a unit of measurement in astronomy and geophysics, denoted in astronomy by the symbol R. In other contexts, it is denoted or sometimes .

Geoid Shape that the ocean surface would take under the influence of the gravity and rotation of Earth alone

The geoid is the shape that the ocean surface would take under the influence of the gravity and rotation of Earth alone, if other influences such as winds and tides were absent. This surface is extended through the continents. According to Gauss, who first described it, it is the "mathematical figure of the Earth", a smooth but irregular surface whose shape results from the uneven distribution of mass within and on the surface of Earth. It can be known only through extensive gravitational measurements and calculations. Despite being an important concept for almost 200 years in the history of geodesy and geophysics, it has been defined to high precision only since advances in satellite geodesy in the late 20th century.

Physical geodesy The study of the physical properties of the Earths gravity field

Physical geodesy is the study of the physical properties of the gravity field of the Earth, the geopotential, with a view to their application in geodesy.

Geopotential is the potential of the Earth's gravity field. For convenience it is often defined as the negative of the potential energy per unit mass, so that the gravity vector is obtained as the gradient of this potential, without the negation.

World Geodetic System Geodetic reference system

The World Geodetic System (WGS) is a standard for use in cartography, geodesy, and satellite navigation including GPS. This standard includes the definition of the coordinate system's fundamental and derived constants, the ellipsoidal (normal) Earth Gravitational Model (EGM), a description of the associated World Magnetic Model (WMM), and a current list of local datum transformations.

Reference ellipsoid Ellipsoid that approximates the figure of the Earth

In geodesy, a reference ellipsoid is a mathematically defined surface that approximates the geoid, which is the truer, imperfect figure of the Earth, or other planetary body, as opposed to a perfect, smooth, and unaltered sphere, which factors in the undulations of the bodies' gravity due to variations in the composition and density of the interior, as well as the subsequent flattening caused by the centrifugal force from the rotation of these massive objects . Because of their relative simplicity, reference ellipsoids are used as a preferred surface on which geodetic network computations are performed and point coordinates such as latitude, longitude, and elevation are defined.

Geodetic Reference System 1980 reference ellipsoid

The Geodetic Reference System 1980 is a geodetic reference system consisting of a global reference ellipsoid and a gravity field model.

Geodetic datum Reference frame used in geodesy, surveying, chartography and navigation

A geodetic datum or geodetic system is a coordinate system, and a set of reference points, used for locating places on the Earth. An approximate definition of sea level is the datum WGS 84, an ellipsoid, whereas a more accurate definition is Earth Gravitational Model 2008 (EGM2008), using at least 2,159 spherical harmonics. Other datums are defined for other areas or at other times; ED50 was defined in 1950 over Europe and differs from WGS 84 by a few hundred meters depending on where in Europe you look. Mars has no oceans and so no sea level, but at least two martian datums have been used to locate places there.

Satellite geodesy geodesy by means of artificial satellites

Satellite geodesy is geodesy by means of artificial satellites — the measurement of the form and dimensions of Earth, the location of objects on its surface and the figure of the Earth's gravity field by means of artificial satellite techniques. It belongs to the broader field of space geodesy. Traditional astronomical geodesy is not commonly considered a part of satellite geodesy, although there is considerable overlap between the techniques.

Clairauts theorem general mathematical law

Clairaut's theorem is a general mathematical law giving the surface gravity on a viscous rotating ellipsoid in equilibrium under the action of its gravitational field and centrifugal force. It was published in 1743 by Alexis Claude Clairaut in a treatise which synthesized physical and geodetic evidence that the Earth is an oblate rotational ellipsoid. It was initially used to relate the gravity at any point on the Earth's surface to the position of that point, allowing the ellipticity of the Earth to be calculated from measurements of gravity at different latitudes. Today it has been largely supplanted by the Somigliana equation.

Flattening Measure of compression between circle to ellipse or sphere to an ellipsoid of revolution

Flattening is a measure of the compression of a circle or sphere along a diameter to form an ellipse or an ellipsoid of revolution (spheroid) respectively. Other terms used are ellipticity, or oblateness. The usual notation for flattening is f and its definition in terms of the semi-axes of the resulting ellipse or ellipsoid is

In geodesy, a meridian arc measurement is the distance between two points with the same longitude, i.e., a segment of a meridian curve or its length. Two or more such determinations at different locations then specify the shape of the reference ellipsoid which best approximates the shape of the geoid. This process is called the determination of the figure of the Earth. The earliest determinations of the size of a spherical Earth required a single arc. The latest determinations use astro-geodetic measurements and the methods of satellite geodesy to determine the reference ellipsoids.

Earth ellipsoid ellipsoid of rotation that approximates the figure of the Earth

An Earth ellipsoid is a mathematical figure approximating the Earth's form, used as a reference frame for computations in geodesy, astronomy, and the geosciences. Various different ellipsoids have been used as approximations.

Vertical datum Reference surface for vertical positions

A vertical datum or height datum is a reference surface for vertical positions, such as the elevations of Earth features including terrain, bathymetry, water level, and man-made structures; in any particular case one must be assigned even if arbitrarily, and commonly adopted criteria for a vertical datum include the following approaches:

Geodesics on an ellipsoid application of geodesics on ellipsoid geometries

The study of geodesics on an ellipsoid arose in connection with geodesy specifically with the solution of triangulation networks. The figure of the Earth is well approximated by an oblate ellipsoid, a slightly flattened sphere. A geodesic is the shortest path between two points on a curved surface, analogous to a straight line on a plane surface. The solution of a triangulation network on an ellipsoid is therefore a set of exercises in spheroidal trigonometry.

In geodesy, a map projection of the tri-axial ellipsoid maps Earth or some other astronomical body modeled as a tri-axial ellipsoid to the plane. Such a model is called the reference ellipsoid. In most cases, reference ellipsoids are spheroids, and sometimes spheres. Massive objects have sufficient gravity to overcome their own rigidity and usually have an oblate ellipsoid shape. However, minor moons or small solar system bodies are not under hydrostatic equilibrium. Usually such bodies have irregular shapes. Furthermore, some of gravitationally rounded objects may have a tri-axial ellipsoid shape due to rapid rotation or unidirectional strong tidal forces.


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PD-icon.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Defense Mapping Agency (1983). Geodesy for the Layman (PDF) (Report). United States Air Force.

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