What is Sea Level and How is it Measured? An Introduction

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The following pages look at what sea level change is, and what mechanisms drive sea level change on a planetary scale.

Before we investigate these mechanisms further, let’s ask a couple of fundamental questions: What is sea level anyway? How is it measured...and why has it fluctuated during the course of geologic time? And why is it not even across the globe? As you watch the following quick video, make a list of forces mentioned that influence sea level. The video clip (3:25) was published on Nov. 25, 2013, by MinutePhysics.

What is Sea Level?

Click for transcript.

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 to "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 the model 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.


The Minute Physics video introduces a few key concepts that make measuring sea level pretty complex:

  1. The Earth is not perfectly spherical, but an ellipsoid, due to its spin. This means that the Earth is “fatter” at the equator and slightly flattened at the poles, so that: “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”.
  2. Differential density of the interior of the Earth so that “gravity is slightly stronger or weaker at different points around the globe, and the oceans tend to "puddle" more nearer to the dense spots”.
  3. The mass of the continental plates creates a greater gravitational pull on ocean water than the ocean basin so that “mass gravitationally attracts oceans, while valleys in the ocean floor have less mass and the oceans flow away, shallower”.

These phenomena mean that there are peaks and valleys in the surface of the ocean – the ocean level is not uniform across the planet. These are important concepts to keep in mind as you read on.

We will also meet several other phenomena that drive sea level changes around the planet later in the module.