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Sea level seems like a pretty easy concept, right? You just measure the average level
of the oceans and that's that. But what about parts of the earth where there aren't oceans?
For example, when we say that Mt. Everest is 8850m above sea level, how do we know what
sea level would be beneath Mt. Everest, since there's no sea for hundreds of kilometers?
If the earth were flat then things would be easy - we'd just draw a straight line through
the average height of the oceans and be done with it. But the earth isn't flat.
If the earth were spherical, it would be easy, too, because we could just measure the average
distance from the center of the earth to the surface of the ocean. But the earth isn't
spherical - it's spinning, so bits closer to the equator are "thrown out" by centrifugal
effects, and the poles get squashed in a bit. In fact, the earth is so non-spherical that
it's 42km farther across at the equator than from pole to pole. That means if you thought
earth were a sphere and defined sea level by standing on the sea ice at the north pole,
then the surface of the ocean at the equator would be 21km above sea level.
This bulging is also why the Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador, and not Mount Everest, is the
peak that's actually farthest from the center of the earth.
So how do we know what sea level is? Well, water is held on Earth by gravity, so we could
model the earth as a flattened & stretched spinning sphere and then calculate what height
the oceans would settle to when pulled by gravity onto the surface of that ellipsoid.
Except the interior of the earth doesn't have the same density everywhere, which means gravity
is slightly stronger or weaker at different points around the globe, and the oceans tend
"puddle" more nearer to the dense spots. These aren't small changes, either - the level of
the sea can vary by up to 100m from a uniform ellipsoid depending on the density of the
Earth beneath it. And on top of that, literally, there are those pesky things called continents
moving around on the Earth's surface. These dense lumps of rock bump out from the ellipsoid
and their mass gravitationally attracts oceans, while valleys in the ocean floor have less
mass and the oceans flow away, shallower.
And this is the real conundrum, because the very presence of a mountain (& continent on
which it sits) changes the level of the sea: the gravitational attraction of land pulls
more water nearby, raising the sea around it. So, to determine the height of a mountain
above sea level, should we use the height the sea would be if the mountain weren't there
at all? Or the height the sea would be if the mountain weren't there but its gravity
were?
The people who worry about such things, called geodetic scientists or geodesists, decided
that we should indeed define sea level using the strength of gravity, so they went about
creating an incredibly detailed model of the earth's gravitational field, called, creatively,
the Earth Gravitational Model. It's incorporated into modern GPS receivers so they won't tell
you you're 100m below sea level when you're in fact sitting on the beach in Sri Lanka
which has weak gravity, and has allowed geodesists themselves to correctly predict the average
level of the ocean to within a meter everywhere on Earth. Which is why we also use it to define
what sea level would be underneath mountains... if they weren't there... but their gravity
were.