The geoid is the shape that the surface of the oceans would take under the influence of Earth's gravity and rotation alone, in the absence of other influences such as winds and tides. This surface is extended through the continents (such as with very narrow hypothetical canals). All points on a geoid surface have the same effective potential (the sum of gravitational potential energy and centrifugal potential energy). The geoid can be defined at any value of gravitational potential such as within the Earth's crust or far out in space, not just at sea level. The force of gravity acts everywhere perpendicular to the geoid, meaning that plumb lines point perpendicular and water levels parallel to the geoid if only gravity and rotational acceleration were at work.
Specifically, the geoid is the equipotential surface that would coincide with the mean ocean surface of Earth if the oceans and atmosphere were in equilibrium, at rest relative to the rotating Earth, and extended through the continents (such as with very narrow canals). According to Gauss, who first described it, it is the "mathematical figure of Earth", a smooth but highly irregular surface whose shape results from the uneven distribution of mass within and on the surface of Earth. It does not correspond to the actual surface of Earth's crust, but to a surface which can only be known through extensive gravitational measurements and calculations. Despite being an important concept for almost two hundred years in the history of geodesy and geophysics, it has only been defined to high precision since advances in satellite geodesy in the late 20th century. It is often described as the true physical figure of the Earth, in contrast to the idealized geometrical figure of a reference ellipsoid.
The surface of the geoid is higher than the reference ellipsoid wherever there is a positive gravity anomaly (mass excess) and lower than the reference ellipsoid wherever there is a negative gravity anomaly (mass deficit).
The geoid surface is irregular, unlike the reference ellipsoid which is a mathematical idealized representation of the physical Earth, but considerably smoother than Earth's physical surface. Although the physical Earth has excursions of +8,848 m (Mount Everest) and −429 m (Dead Sea), the geoid's variation ranges from −106 to +85 m, less than 200 m total compared to a perfect mathematical ellipsoid.
If the ocean surface were isopycnic (of constant density) and undisturbed by tides, currents, or weather, it would closely approximate the geoid. The permanent deviation between the geoid and mean sea level is called ocean surface topography. If the continental land masses were criss-crossed by a series of tunnels or canals, the sea level in these canals would also very nearly coincide with the geoid. In reality the geoid does not have a physical meaning under the continents, but geodesists are able to derive the heights of continental points above this imaginary, yet physically defined, surface by a technique called spirit leveling.
Being an equipotential surface, the geoid is by definition a surface to which the force of gravity is everywhere perpendicular. This means that when traveling by ship, one does not notice the undulations of the geoid; the local vertical (plumb line) is always perpendicular to the geoid and the local horizon tangential to it. Likewise, spirit levels will always be parallel to the geoid.
On a long voyage, spirit leveling indicates height variations even though the ship is always at sea level (neglecting the effects of tides). This is because GPS satellites, orbiting about the center of gravity of the Earth, can only measure heights relative to a geocentric reference ellipsoid. To obtain one's geoidal height, a raw GPS reading must be corrected. Conversely, height determined by spirit leveling from a tidal measurement station, as in traditional land surveying, will always be geoidal height. Modern GPS receivers have a grid implemented inside where they obtain the geoid (e.g. EGM-96) height over the World Geodetic System (WGS) ellipsoid from the current position. Then they are able to correct the height above WGS ellipsoid to the height above WGS84 geoid. When height is not zero on a ship, the discrepancy is due to other factors such as ocean tides, atmospheric pressure (meteorological effects) and local sea surface topography.
The gravitational field of the earth is neither perfect nor uniform. A flattened ellipsoid is typically used as the idealized earth, but even if the earth were perfectly spherical, the strength of gravity would not be the same everywhere, because density (and therefore mass) varies throughout the planet. This is due to magma distributions, mountain ranges, deep sea trenches, and so on.
If that perfect sphere were then covered in water, the water would not be the same height everywhere. Instead, the water level would be higher or lower depending on the particular strength of gravity in that location.
Spherical harmonics are often used to approximate the shape of the geoid. The current best such set of spherical harmonic coefficients is EGM96 (Earth Gravity Model 1996), determined in an international collaborative project led by NIMA. The mathematical description of the non-rotating part of the potential function in this model is:
where and are geocentric (spherical) latitude and longitude respectively, are the fully normalized associated Legendre polynomials of degree and order , and and are the numerical coefficients of the model based on measured data. Note that the above equation describes the Earth's gravitational potential , not the geoid itself, at location the co-ordinate being the geocentric radius, i.e., distance from the Earth's centre. The geoid is a particular equipotential surface, and is somewhat involved to compute. The gradient of this potential also provides a model of the gravitational acceleration. EGM96 contains a full set of coefficients to degree and order 360 (i.e. ), describing details in the global geoid as small as 55 km (or 110 km, depending on your definition of resolution). The number of coefficients, and , can be determined by first observing in the equation for V that for a specific value of n there are two coefficients for every value of m except for m = 0. There is only one coefficient when m=0 since . There are thus (2n+1) coefficients for every value of n. Using these facts and the formula, , it follows that the total number of coefficients is given by
For many applications the complete series is unnecessarily complex and is truncated after a few (perhaps several dozen) terms.
New even higher resolution models are currently under development. For example, many of the authors of EGM96 are working on an updated model that should incorporate much of the new satellite gravity data (see, e.g., GRACE), and should support up to degree and order 2160 (1/6 of a degree, requiring over 4 million coefficients).
NGA has announced the availability of EGM2008, complete to spherical harmonic degree and order 2159, and contains additional coefficients extending to degree 2190 and order 2159. Software and data is on the Earth Gravitational Model 2008 (EGM2008) - WGS 84 Version] page.
The Precise Geoid Solution by Vaníček and co-workers improved on the Stokesian approach to geoid computation. Their solution enables millimetre-to-centimetre accuracy in geoid computation, an order-of-magnitude improvement from previous classical solutions.
Variations in the height of the geoidal surface are related to density anomalous distributions within the Earth. Geoid measures help thus to understand the internal structure of the planet. Synthetic calculations show that the geoidal signature of a thickened crust (for example, in orogenic belts produced by continental collision) is positive, opposite to what should be expected if the thickening affects the entire lithosphere.
Recent satellite missions, such as GOCE and GRACE, have enabled the study of time-variable geoid signals. The first products based on GOCE satellite data became available online in June 2010, through the European Space Agency (ESA)’s Earth observation user services tools. ESA launched the satellite in March 2009 on a mission to map Earth's gravity with unprecedented accuracy and spatial resolution. On 31 March 2011, the new geoid model was unveiled at the Fourth International GOCE User Workshop hosted at the Technische Universität München in Munich, Germany. Studies using the time-variable geoid computed from GRACE data have provided information on global hydrologic cycles, mass balances of ice sheets, and postglacial rebound. From postglacial rebound measurements, time-variable GRACE data can be used to deduce the viscosity of Earth's mantle.
The geoid of Mars has been measured using flight paths of satellite missions such as Mariner 9 and Viking. The main departures from the ellipsoid expected of an ideal fluid are from the Tharsis volcanic plateau, a continent-size region of elevated terrain, and its antipodes.