Geodesy: Definition & Branches

Instructor: David Gloag
In this lesson, we'll take a look at Geodesy, a mathematical discipline with three branches and many uses. At the end, you should have a good understanding of this world affecting discipline.

People and Boundaries

This wonderful planet of ours is large. Everywhere you look, you see the people that inhabit it. You see the kids in the school yards, you see your neighbors across the street, and you see community members at the local store. The earth has some seven and a half billion residents at last count. With this many people, there are bound to be discussions over political and residential boundaries. So, how do we accurately determine those boundaries? How do we arrive at them in a fair and consistent fashion? There are many ways, and one in particular is through geodesy.

What is Geodesy?

Geodesy is an applied mathematics discipline used to understand various aspects of the Earth. In particular, it looks at:

  • Shape - the geometric object it resembles in both general and specific terms. In general terms, we know it's a sphere, but in specific terms, mountains and valleys skew that representation.
  • Orientation - the relative position of key features, like the magnetic poles, in relation to other things in the solar system and galaxy.
  • Gravity Field - the effects of gravity as we move away from the surface, whether it is constant over the entire surface, and other factors.

Geodesy focuses on taking measurements of these aspects, and tracking this information over time.

What is Geodesy Used for?

As you might imagine, the information gathered has a number of uses. Some notable ones include:

  • Map Shorelines - Geodesy can help determine the physical boundary between a land mass, and the water it meets. This can be difficult with water levels rising and falling. You see examples of this in the maps we use.
  • Determine Land Boundaries - at a macro level, this use comes into play between countries and provinces/states. At a micro level, it determines the property lines for home and your neighbor's.
  • Improve Transportation - Geodesy contributes to things like route determination, shortest routes, traffic patterns, and such. You see this in trip planning software, and in services like taxis and buses.
  • Increase Navigational Safety - this use affects navigation, especially in areas where landmarks are at a minimum, like over water. You see this in things like cargo ship and cruise line navigation.

What Are Some Branches of Geodesy?

There are three main branches or areas in geodesy. They are:

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