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The Elements of Geodesy: Gravity

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Geoid Earth with inset of North America

Imagine if all the mountains and valleys were scoured off the planet leaving a continuous world ocean completely at rest. The effects of the Earth's gravity on this hypothetical world mean sea level is represented by the geoid. Click on the image for a larger view and more images.

Gravity is the force that pulls all objects in the universe toward each other. On Earth, gravity pulls all objects "downward" toward the center of the planet. According to Sir Isaac Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation, the gravitational attraction between two bodies is stronger when the masses of the objects are greater and closer together. This rule applies to the Earth's gravitational field as well. Because the Earth rotates and its mass and density vary at different locations on the planet, gravity also varies.

One reason that geodesists measure variations in the Earth's gravity is because gravity plays a major role in determining mean sea level. Geodesists calculate the elevation of locations on the Earth's surface based on the mean sea level. So knowing how gravity changes sea level helps geodesists make more accurate measurements. In general, in areas of the planet where gravitational forces are stronger, the mean sea level will be higher. In areas where the Earth's gravitational forces are weaker, the mean sea level will be lower.

To measure the Earth's gravity field, geodesists use instruments in space and on land. In space, satellites gather data on gravitational changes as they pass over points on the Earth's surface. On land, devices called gravimeters measure the Earth's gravitational pull on a suspended mass. With this data, geodesists can create detailed maps of gravitational fields and adjust elevations on existing maps. Gravity principally affects the vertical datum because it changes the elevation of the land surface (Geodesy for the Layman, 1984).

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