The actual topographic surface is most apparent with its variety of land forms and water areas. This is, in fact, the surface on which actual Earth measurements are made. However, it is not feasible for exact mathematical analysis, because the formulas which would be required to take the irregularities into account would necessitate a prohibitive amount of computation. The topographic surface is generally the concern of topographers and hydrographers.
The Pythagorean concept of a spherical Earth offers a simple surface that is mathematically easy to deal with. Many astronomical and navigational computations use it as a surface representing the Earth. While the sphere is a close approximation of the true figure of the Earth and satisfactory for many purposes, to the geodesists interested in the measurement of long distances on the scale of continents and oceans, a more exact figure is necessary. Closer approximations range from modelling the shape of the surface of the entire Earth as an oblate spheroid or an oblate ellipsoid, to the use of spherical harmonics or local approximations in terms of local reference ellipsoids.
The idea of a planar or flat surface for Earth, however, is still sufficient for surveys of small areas, as the local topography is far more significant than the curvature. Plane-table surveys are made for relatively small areas, and no account is taken of the curvature of the Earth. A survey of a city would likely be computed as though the Earth were a plane surface the size of the city. For such small areas, exact positions can be determined relative to each other without considering the size and shape of the entire Earth.
In the mid- to late 20th century, research across the geosciences contributed to drastic improvements in the accuracy of the figure of the Earth. The primary utility (and the motivation for funding, mainly from the military) of this improved accuracy was to provide geographical and gravitational data for the inertial guidance systems of ballistic missiles. This funding also drove the expansion of geoscientific disciplines, fostering the creation and growth of various geoscience departments at many universities.
The models for the figure of the Earth vary in the way they are used, in their complexity, and in the accuracy with which they represent the size and shape of the Earth.
The simplest model for the shape of the entire Earth is a sphere. The Earth's radius is the distance from Earth's center to its surface, about 6,371 kilometers (3,959 mi). While "radius" normally is a characteristic of perfect spheres, the Earth deviates from a perfect sphere by only a third of a percent, sufficiently close to treat it as a sphere in many contexts and justifying the term "the radius of the Earth".
The concept of a spherical Earth dates back to around the 6th century BC, but remained a matter of philosophical speculation until the 3rd century BC. The first scientific estimation of the radius of the earth was given by Eratosthenes about 240 BC, with estimates of the accuracy of Eratosthenes’s measurement ranging from 2% to 15%.
The Earth is only approximately spherical, so no single value serves as its natural radius. Distances from points on the surface to the center range from 6,353 km to 6,384 km (3,947 – 3,968 mi). Several different ways of modeling the Earth as a sphere each yield a mean radius of 6,371 kilometers (3,959 mi). Regardless of the model, any radius falls between the polar minimum of about 6,357 km and the equatorial maximum of about 6,378 km (3,950 – 3,963 mi). The difference 21 kilometers (13 mi) correspond to the polar radius being approximately 0.3% shorter than the equator radius.
Since the Earth is flattened at the poles and bulges at the equator, geodesy represents the shape of the earth with an oblate spheroid. The oblate spheroid, or oblate ellipsoid, is an ellipsoid of revolution obtained by rotating an ellipse about its shorter axis. It is the regular geometric shape that most nearly approximates the shape of the Earth. A spheroid describing the figure of the Earth or other celestial body is called a reference ellipsoid. The reference ellipsoid for Earth is called an Earth ellipsoid.
An ellipsoid of revolution is uniquely defined by two numbers: two dimensions, or one dimension and a number representing the difference between the two dimensions. Geodesists, by convention, use the semimajor axis and flattening. The size is represented by the radius at the equator (the semimajor axis of the cross-sectional ellipse) and designated by the letter
. The shape of the ellipsoid is given by the flattening,
, which indicates how much the ellipsoid departs from spherical. (In practice, the two defining numbers are usually the equatorial radius and the reciprocal of the flattening, rather than the flattening itself; for the WGS84 spheroid used by today's GPS systems, the reciprocal of the flattening is set at 298.257223563 exactly.)
The difference between a sphere and a reference ellipsoid for Earth is small, only about one part in 300. Historically, flattening was computed from grade measurements. Nowadays, geodetic networks and satellite geodesy are used. In practice, many reference ellipsoids have been developed over the centuries from different surveys. The flattening value varies slightly from one reference ellipsoid to another, reflecting local conditions and whether the reference ellipsoid is intended to model the entire Earth or only some portion of it.
A sphere has a single radius of curvature, which is simply the radius of the sphere. More complex surfaces have radii of curvature that vary over the surface. The radius of curvature describes the radius of the sphere that best approximates the surface at that point. Oblate ellipsoids have constant radius of curvature east to west along parallels, if a graticule is drawn on the surface, but varying curvature in any other direction. For an oblate ellipsoid, the polar radius of curvature
is larger than the equatorial
because the pole is flattened: the flatter the surface, the larger the sphere must be to approximate it. Conversely, the ellipsoid's north-south radius of curvature at the equator
is smaller than the polar
is the distance from the center of the ellipsoid to the equator (semi-major axis), and
is the distance from the center to the pole. (semi-minor axis)
The possibility that the Earth's equator is an ellipse rather than a circle and therefore that the ellipsoid is triaxial has been a matter of scientific controversy for many years. Modern technological developments have furnished new and rapid methods for data collection and, since the launch of Sputnik 1, orbital data have been used to investigate the theory of ellipticity.
A second theory, more complicated than triaxiality, proposed that observed long periodic orbital variations of the first Earth satellites indicate an additional depression at the south pole accompanied by a bulge of the same degree at the north pole. It is also contended that the northern middle latitudes were slightly flattened and the southern middle latitudes bulged in a similar amount. This concept suggested a slightly pear-shaped Earth and was the subject of much public discussion. Modern geodesy tends to retain the ellipsoid of revolution and treat triaxiality and pear shape as a part of the geoid figure: they are represented by the spherical harmonic coefficients
, respectively, corresponding to degree and order numbers 2.2 for the triaxiality and 3.0 for the pear shape.
It was stated earlier that measurements are made on the apparent or topographic surface of the Earth and it has just been explained that computations are performed on an ellipsoid. One other surface is involved in geodetic measurement: the geoid. In geodetic surveying, the computation of the geodetic coordinates of points is commonly performed on a reference ellipsoid closely approximating the size and shape of the Earth in the area of the survey. The actual measurements made on the surface of the Earth with certain instruments are however referred to the geoid. The ellipsoid is a mathematically defined regular surface with specific dimensions. The geoid, on the other hand, coincides with that surface to which the oceans would conform over the entire Earth if free to adjust to the combined effect of the Earth's mass attraction (gravitation) and the centrifugal force of the Earth's rotation. As a result of the uneven distribution of the Earth's mass, the geoidal surface is irregular and, since the ellipsoid is a regular surface, the separations between the two, referred to as geoid undulations, geoid heights, or geoid separations, will be irregular as well.
The geoid is a surface along which the gravity potential is everywhere equal and to which the direction of gravity is always perpendicular (see equipotential surface). The latter is particularly important because optical instruments containing gravity-reference leveling devices are commonly used to make geodetic measurements. When properly adjusted, the vertical axis of the instrument coincides with the direction of gravity and is, therefore, perpendicular to the geoid. The angle between the plumb line which is perpendicular to the geoid (sometimes called "the vertical") and the perpendicular to the ellipsoid (sometimes called "the ellipsoidal normal") is defined as the deflection of the vertical. It has two components: an east-west and a north-south component.
Determining the exact figure of the Earth is not only a geodetic operation or a task of geometry, but is also related to geophysics. Without any idea of the Earth's interior, we can state a "constant density" of 5.515 g/cm³ and, according to theoretical arguments (see Leonhard Euler, Albert Wangerin, etc.), such a body rotating like the Earth would have a flattening of 1:230.
In fact, the measured flattening is 1:298.25, which is more similar to a sphere and a strong argument that the Earth's core is very compact. Therefore, the density must be a function of the depth, reaching from about 2.7 g/cm³ at the surface (rock density of granite, limestone etc. – see regional geology) up to approximately 15 within the inner core. Modern seismology yields a value of 16 g/cm³ at the center of the Earth.
Also with implications for the physical exploration of the Earth's interior is the gravitational field, which can be measured very accurately at the surface and remotely by satellites. True vertical generally does not correspond to theoretical vertical (deflection ranges up to 50") because topography and all geological masses disturb the gravitational field. Therefore, the gross structure of the earth's crust and mantle can be determined by geodetic-geophysical models of the subsurface.
Earth's volume is approximately 1,083,210,000,000 km3 (2.5988×1011 cu mi).