Monday, October 22, 2007

The Geoid - An Equipotential Description with Gravity

The Geoid is a surface that is not often talked about on blogs or mentioned on the web - so this may be a first.

The Geoid surface is irregular, unlike reference ellipsoids (such as Clarke 1866, Bessel, Hayford, etc.) which have been used to approximate the shape of the physical Earth at a local point. The geoid is considerably smoother than Earth's physical surface.

In looking for a good description that makes sense to many people, I stumbled upon this one on Wikipedia:

"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."

and further it states:

"The geoid is a surface along which the gravity potential is everywhere equal and to which the direction of gravity is always perpendicular. The latter is particularly important because optical instruments containing levelling 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."

The reference surface for heights is traditionally taken as Mean Sea Level (MSL).

The geoid, as described above, is a surface of equal gravity potential which closely approximates mean sea level.

With GPS becoming more and more relevant in our daily lives, what is the height measurement we get?
The heights derived from GPS are relative to the GPS reference ellipsoid (WGS84). The separation between the geoid and an ellipsoid is known as the geoid-ellipsoid separation, or N value.

In a mathematical sense, we have the following then:

H = h - N

where H = Orthometric Height

h = Ellipsoidal Height (for example, the height above the ellipsoid WGS84)

N = Geoid-Ellipsoid Height (this is also called the Geoid Undulation)

Note that with N, that if the geoid is above the ellipsoid, N is positive. If the geoid is below the ellipsoid, N is negative.

How does mass effect the geoid and the ellipsoid?

Where a mass deficiency exists, the geoid will dip below the mean ellipsoid and where a mass surplus exists, the geoid will rise above the mean ellipsoid.

Where are the largest undulations?

Well, the largest undulations known, with the minimum in the Indian Ocean at a value of N = -100 metres and the maximum in the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean with N = +70 metres.

So how do we describe the shape and size of the Earth?

There are three surfaces to be considered:

  • The topography - the physical surface of the earth.

  • The Geoid - the level surface (also a physical reality).

  • The Ellipsoid - the mathematical surface for computations.

Mean Sea Level (MSL) points, an approximation to the geoid, and can be used as reference surfaces for height measurements (i.e. orthometric heights).

Ellipsoidal heights (such as those derived by GPS) have to be adjusted before they can be compared to the orthometric heights given on topographic maps.

The deviation between the geoid and an reference ellipsoid is called Geoid undulation (N). Geoid undulations can be used to adjust the ellipsoidal heights (H = h +/- N).

This is an introduction to the Geoid and the science of Geodesy. It hopefully clears up some questions about this surface.

I'll explain in more detail some of the formulations of the Geoid and how geodesists over time have tried to model it and some of the efforts being conducted presently to come up with a global gravity model to aid in height determination at a later date.

There are some very interesting projects going on in Africa, South America, and Canada.