Geodesy and the Size and Shape of the Planet Earth

Measuring the Size and Shape of Earth

Teenage Girl Holding Globe in Hands.
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Earth, with average distance of 92,955,820 miles (149,597,890 km) from the sun, is the third planet and one of the most unique planets in the solar system. It formed around 4.5-4.6 billion years ago and is the only planet known to sustain life. This is because factors like its atmospheric composition and physical properties such as the presence of water over 70.8% of the planet allow life to thrive.

Earth is also unique however because it is the largest of the terrestrial planets (one that is composed of a thin layer of rocks as opposed to those that are mostly made up of gases like Jupiter or Saturn) based on its mass, density, and diameter. Earth is also the fifth largest planet in the entire solar system.

Earth's Size

As the largest of the terrestrial planets, Earth has an estimated mass of 5.9736 × 1024 kg. Its volume is also the largest of these planets at 108.321 × 1010km3.

In addition, Earth is the densest of the terrestrial planets as it is made up of a crust, mantle and core. The Earth's crust is the thinnest of these layers while the mantle comprises 84% of Earth's volume and extends 1,800 miles (2,900 km) below the surface. What makes Earth the densest of these planets however is its core. It is the only terrestrial planet with a liquid outer core that surrounds a solid, dense inner core.

Earth's average density is 5515 × 10 kg/m3. Mars, the smallest of the terrestrial planets by density, is only around 70% as dense as Earth.

Earth is classified as the largest of the terrestrial planets based on its circumference and diameter as well. At the equator, Earth's circumference is 24,901.55 miles (40,075.16 km).

It is slightly smaller between the North and South poles at 24,859.82 miles (40,008 km). Earth's diameter at the poles is 7,899.80 miles (12,713.5 km) while it is 7,926.28 miles (12,756.1 km) at the equator. For comparison, the largest planet in Earth's solar system, Jupiter, has a diameter of 88,846 miles (142,984 km).

Earth's Shape

Earth's circumference and diameter differ because its shape is classified as an oblate spheroid or ellipsoid, instead of a true sphere. This means that instead of being of equal circumference in all areas, the poles are squished, resulting in a bulge at the equator, and thus a larger circumference and diameter there.

The equatorial bulge at Earth's equator is measured at 26.5 miles (42.72 km) and is caused by the planet's rotation and gravity. Gravity itself causes planets and other celestial bodies to contract and form a sphere. This is because it pulls all the mass of an object as close to the center of gravity (the Earth's core in this case) as possible.

Because Earth rotates, this sphere is distorted by the centrifugal force. This is the force that causes objects to move outward away from the center of gravity. Therefore, as the Earth rotates, centrifugal force is greatest at the equator so it causes a slight outward bulge there, giving that region a larger circumference and diameter.

Local topography also plays a role in the Earth's shape, but on a global scale its role is very small. The largest differences in local topography across the globe are Mount Everest, the highest point above sea level at 29,035 ft (8,850 m), and the Mariana Trench, the lowest point below sea level at 35,840 ft (10,924 m). This difference is only a matter of about 12 miles (19 km), which is very minor overall. If equatorial bulge is considered, the world's highest point and the place that is farthest from the Earth's center is the peak of the volcano Chimborazo in Ecuador as it is the highest peak that is nearest the equator. Its elevation is 20,561 ft (6,267 m).


To ensure that the Earth's size and shape is studied accurately, geodesy, a branch of science responsible for measuring the Earth's size and shape with surveys and mathematical calculations is used.

Throughout history, geodesy was a significant branch of science as early scientists and philosophers attempted to determine the Earth's shape. Aristotle is the first person credited with trying to calculate Earth's size and was therefore, an early geodesist. The Greek philosopher Eratosthenes followed and was able to estimate the Earth's circumference at 25,000 miles, only slightly higher than today's accepted measurement.

In order to study the Earth and use geodesy today, researchers often refer to the ellipsoid, geoid and datums. An ellipsoid in this field is a theoretical mathematical model that shows a smooth, simplistic representation of the Earth's surface. It is used to measure distances on the surface without having to account for things like elevation changes and landforms. To account for the reality of the Earth's surface, geodesists use the geoid which is a shape that is constructed using the global mean sea level and as a result takes elevation changes into account.

The basis of all geodetic work today though is the datum. These are sets of data that act as reference points for global surveying work. In geodesy, there are two main datums used for transportation and navigation in the U.S. and they make up a portion of the National Spatial Reference System.

Today, technology like satellites and global positioning systems (GPS) allow geodesists and other scientists to make extremely accurate measurements of the Earth's surface. In fact it is so accurate, geodesy can allow for worldwide navigation but it also allows researchers to measure small changes in the Earth's surface down to the centimeter level to obtain the most accurate measurements of the Earth's size and shape.