Fast Facts: What is Geodesy?

Credit: NOAA
Credit: NOAA

By The Maritime Executive 09-07-2019 05:10:00

Geodesy is the science of accurately measuring and understanding three fundamental properties of the Earth: its geometric shape, its orientation in space, and its gravity field - as well as the changes of these properties with time. By using GPS, geodesists can monitor the movement of a site 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Many organizations use geodesy to map the U.S. shoreline, determine land boundaries, and improve transportation and navigation safety. To measure points on the Earth’s surface, geodesists assign coordinates (similar to a unique address) to points all over the Earth. In the past, geodesists determined the coordinates of points by using Earth-based surveying tools to measure the distances between points. Today, geodesists use space-based tools like GPS to measure points on the Earth’s surface.

Geodesists must accurately define the coordinates of points on the surface of the Earth in a consistent manner. A set of accurately measured points is the basis for the National Spatial Reference System, which allows different kinds of maps to be consistent with one another.

To measure the Earth, geodesists build simple mathematical models of the Earth which capture the largest, most obvious features. Geodesists have adopted the ellipsoid as the most basic model of the Earth. Because the ellipsoid is based on a very simple mathematical model, it can be completely smooth and does not include any mountains or valleys. When additional detail of the Earth is needed, geodesists use the geoid. A geoid has a shape very similar to global mean sea level, but this exists over the whole globe, not just over the oceans.

Article and diagram courtesy of NOAA's National Ocean Service.