What is the geoid?

The geoid is a model of global mean sea level that is used to measure precise surface elevations.

A depiction of the United States geoid. Areas in yellow and orange have a slightly stronger gravity field as a result of the Rocky Mountains. Credit: NOAA.


While we often think of the earth as a sphere, our planet is actually very bumpy and irregular.

The radius at the equator is larger than at the poles due to the long-term effects of the earth’s rotation. And, at a smaller scale, there is topography—mountains have more mass than a valley and thus the pull of gravity is regionally stronger near mountains.

All of these large and small variations to the size, shape, and mass distribution of the earth cause slight variations in the acceleration of gravity (or the “strength” of gravity’s pull). These variations determine the shape of the planet’s liquid environment.

If one were to remove the tides and currents from the ocean, it would settle onto a smoothly undulating shape (rising where gravity is high, sinking where gravity is low).

This irregular shape is called “the geoid,” a surface which defines zero elevation. Using complex math and gravity readings on land, surveyors extend this imaginary line through the continents. This model is used to measure surface elevations with a high degree of accuracy.

Compiled by Andy Duncan


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