The geoid is that equipotential surface which would coincide exactly with the mean ocean surface of the Earth, if the oceans were in equilibrium, at rest, and extended through the continents (such as with very narrow canals). According to C.F. Gauss, who first described it, it is the “mathematical figure of the Earth,” a smooth but highly irregular surface that corresponds not to the actual surface of the 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 in recent decades, for instance by works of P. Vaníček and others. It is often described as the true physical figure of the Earth, in contrast to the idealized geometrical figure of a reference ellipsoid.
3. Local plumb
The geoid surface is irregular, unlike the reference ellipsoids often used to approximate the shape of the physical Earth, but considerably smoother than Earth’s physical surface. While the latter has excursions of +8,000 m (Mount Everest) and −11,000 m (Mariana Trench), the total variation in the geoid is less than 200 m (-106 to +85 m)compared to a perfect mathematical ellipsoid.
Sea level, if undisturbed by currents and weather, would assume a surface equal to the geoid. If the continental land masses were criss-crossed by a series of tunnels or narrow canals, the sea level in these canals would also 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 travelling by ship, one does not notice the undulations of the geoid; the local vertical is always perpendicular to the geoid and the local horizon tangential component to it. Likewise, spirit levels will always be parallel to the geoid.
Note that a GPS receiver on a ship may, during the course of a long voyage, indicate height variations, even though the ship will always be at sea level. 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.