What is the Surface Area of the Earth?

Whoever coined the phrase “it’s a small world” obviously never tried to travel around it! In truth, the planet’s dimensions are quite impressive, and determining just how big it is took many thousands of years. From astronomers determining that Earth was in fact round (and not a flat disc, cube or ziggurat), to the first successful attempts at circumnavigation, our estimates have changed over time.

And in the era of modern astronomy, improvements in instrumentation, methodology, and the ability to see Earth from space have certainly helped. According to modern estimates, the surface area of the Earth is approximately 510 million square km (5.1 x 108 km2) or 196,900,000 square miles. Determining this was not only a matter of ascertaining Earth’s dimensions, but also its proper shape.

Shape of the Earth:

For starters, and contrary to what scientists have believed since classical antiquity, Earth is not a perfect sphere. Since the 17th and 18th centuries – thanks to improvements made in the field of astronomy and geodesy (a branch of mathematics dealing with the measurement of the Earth) – scientists have understood that the Earth is actually a flattened sphere.

This is what is known as an “oblate spheroid”, which is a sphere that is wider at its horizontal axis than it is at its vertical axis. According to the 2004 Working Group of the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS), Earth experiences a flattening of 0.0033528 at the poles. This flattening is due to Earth’s rotational velocity – a rapid 1,674.4 km/h (1,040.4 mph) – which causes the planet to bulge at the equator.

Because of this, the diameter of the Earth at the equator is about 43 kilometers (27 mi) larger than the pole-to-pole diameter. The latest measurements indicate that the Earth has an equatorial diameter of 12,756 km (7926 mi), and a polar diameter of 12713.6 km (7899.86 mi). This is true for other planets in the Solar System that have rapid rotations (like Jupiter and Saturn), and even stars like the rapidly-spinning Altair.

Calculation:

Given its particular shape, calculating the Earth’s surface area requires a specific equation. Whereas determining the surface area of a sphere is a simple matter of multiplying pi by four, and these by the square of its radius (4 x 3.14159… x r²), to calculate the surface area of an oblate spheroid – where the distance from the center to a pole (c) is less than its semi-axis (a) – the following equation has to come into play:

{\displaystyle S_{\rm {oblate}}=2\pi a^{2}\left(1+{\frac {1-e^{2}}{e}}\tanh ^{-1}e\right)\quad {\mbox{where}}\quad e^{2}=1-{\frac {c^{2}}{a^{2}}}.}

Whereas S equals the surface area, c represents the distance from the center to a pole, and a represents the semi-axis, e represents the eccentricity.  Naturally, Earth’s surface area can also be subdivided between water and land segments (aka. oceans or continental crust).

The assignment of semi-axes on a spheroid. It is oblate if ca (right). Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Ag2gaeh

And since 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, that works out to 361 million km² (139.4 million mi²). Earth’s continents, on the other hand, cover the remaining 149 million km² (57.5 or million mi²). This is a phenomena unique to Earth (at least in our Solar System) since no other Solar planet has liquid water covering a significant amount of its surface.

Other Solar Planets:

Compared to the other planets of the Solar System, Earth ranks somewhere in the middle. Of the terrestrial planets (i.e. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) it is the largest. However, when compared to the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) it comes in dead last! Let’s see just how Earth stacks up against these other worlds…

Mercury is the smallest planet in our Solar System (ever since the 2006 IAU decision that designated Pluto as “dwarf planet”). It has a surface area of 7.48 x 107 km2, which is only about 15% of Earth’s surface area. Venus is similar in size to Earth, hence why it has earned the title of “Earth’s Sister Planet”. Consistently, Venus has a surface area of 4.6 x 108 km2, which is roughly 90% of Earth’s.

Mars is also a small planet, the second smallest in our Solar System. This is evident in Mars’ diminutive surface area of 1.45 x 108 km2, which is roughly 28% that of Earth’s. Moving to the outer Solar System, it is quickly made apparent that all of the gas giants have the four planets of the inner Solar System beat (at least in a size contest)!

An illustration showing the 8 planets of the Solar System to scale. Credit: NASA

Jupiter is the largest planet in our Solar System, with a surface area of 6.14 x 1010 km2 – which is about 122 times greater than the surface area of Earth! Saturn is the second largest planet in our Solar System and has a surface area of 4.27 x 1010 km2 – which is roughly 83.7 times that of Earth.

As for the “ice giants”, Uranus has a surface area of 8.1156 x 109 km2 (15.91 times that of Earth) while Neptune has a slightly smaller surface area of  7.618 x 109 km2, which is close to 15 times that of Earth.

All told, Earth is relatively spacious place, as terrestrial bodies go. But the amount of surface that we humans can actually live on is rather limited. Once you subtract all the space that’s occupied by water, you begin to see that the world may be a little on the smallish side after all.

We have written many interest articles about the Earth for Universe Today. Here’s What is the Diameter of Earth?, How Strong is the Force of Gravity on Earth?, How Much Does the Earth Way?, How Fast Does the Earth Rotate?, 1o Interesting Facts About Planet Earth, What is the Earth’s Average Temperature?, and Why Does the Earth Rotate?

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

Sources:

This Star Is The Roundest Natural Object Ever Seen

At one time, scientists believed that the Earth, the Moon, and all the other planets in our Solar System were perfect spheres. The same held true for the Sun, which they considered to be the heavenly orb that was the source of all our warmth and energy. But as time and research showed, the Sun is far from perfect. In addition to sunspots and solar flares, the Sun is not completely spherical.

For some time, astronomers believed this was the case with other stars as well. Owing to a number of factors, all stars previously studied by astronomers appeared to experience some bulging at the equator (i.e. oblateness). However, in a study published by a team of international astronomers, it now appears that a slowly rotating star located 5000 light years away is as close to spherical as we’ve ever seen!

Until now, observation of stars has been confined to only a few of the fastest-rotating nearby stars, and was only possible through interferometry. This technique, which is typically used by astronomers to obtain stellar size estimates, relies on multiple small telescopes obtaining electromagnetic readings on a star. This information is then combined to create a higher-resolution image that would be obtained by a large telescope.

Artist's impression of a white dwarf star in orbit around Sirius (a white supergiant). Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)
Artist’s impression of a Sirius, an A-type Main Sequence White star. Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

However, by conducting asteroseismic measurements of a nearby star, a team of astronomers – from the Max Planck Institute, the University of Tokyo, and New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) – were able to get a much more precise idea of its shape. Their results were published in a study titled “Shape of a Slowly Rotating Star Measured by Asteroseismology“, which recently appeared in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Laurent Gizon, a researcher with the Max Planck Institute, was the lead authjor on the paper. As he explained their research methodology to Universe Today via email:

“The new method that we propose in this paper to measure stellar shapes, asteroseismology, can be several orders of magnitude more precise than optical interferometry. It applies only to stars that oscillate in long-lived non-radial modes. The ultimate precision of the method is given by the precision on the measurement of the frequencies of the modes of oscillation. The longer the observation duration (four years in the case of Kepler), the better the precision on the mode frequencies. In the case of  KIC 11145123 the most precise mode frequencies can be determined to one part in 10,000,000. Hence the astonishing precision of asteroseismology.”

Located 5000 light years away from Earth, KIC 11145123 was considered a perfect candidate for this method. For one, Kepler 11145123 is a hot and luminous, over twice the size of our Sun, and rotates with a period of 100 days. Its oscillations are also long-lived, and correspond directly to fluctuations in its brightness. Using data obtained by NASA’s Kepler mission over a more than four year period, the team was able to get very accurate shape estimates.

The variations in brightness can be interpreted as vibrations, or oscillations within the stars, using a technique called asteroseismology. The oscillations reveal information about the internal structure of the stars, in much the same way that seismologists use earthquakes to probe the Earth's interior. Credit: Kepler Astroseismology team.
The variations in brightness can be interpreted as vibrations, or oscillations within the stars, using a technique called asteroseismology. Credit: Kepler Astroseismology team.

“We compared the frequencies of the modes of oscillation that are more sensitive to the low-latitude regions of the star to the frequencies of the modes that are more sensitive to higher latitudes,” said Gizon. “This comparison showed that the difference in radius between the equator and the poles is only 3 km with a precision of 1 km. This makes Kepler 11145123 the roundest natural object ever measured, it is even more round than the Sun.”

For comparison, our Sun has a rotational period of about 25 days, and the difference between its polar and equatorial radii is about 10 km. And on Earth, which has a rotational period of less than a day (23 hours 56 minutes and 4.1 seconds), there is a difference of over 23 km (14.3 miles) between its polar and equator. The reason for this considerable difference is something of a mystery.

In the past, astronomers have found that the shape of a star can come down to multiple factors – such as their rotational velocity, magnetic fields, thermal asphericities, large-scale flows, strong stellar winds, or the gravitational influence of stellar companions or giant planets. Ergo, measuring the “asphericity” (i.e. the degree to which a star is NOT a sphere) can tell astronomers much about the star structures and its system of planets.

Ordinarily, rotational velocity has been seen to have a direct bearing on the stars asphericity – i.e. the faster it rotates, the more oblate it is. However, when looking at data obtained by the Kepler probe over a period of four years, they noticed that its oblateness was only a third of what they expected, given its rotational velocity.

Laurent Gizon, the lead researcher of the study, pictured comparing images of our Sun and Kepler 11145123. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany.
Laurent Gizon, the lead researcher of the study, pictured with asteroseismic readings of Kepler 11145123. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany.

As such, they were forced to conclude that something else was responsible for the star’s highly spherical shape. “”We propose that the presence of a magnetic field at low latitudes could make the star look more spherical to the stellar oscillations,” said Gizon. “It is known in solar physics that acoustic waves propagate faster in magnetic regions.”

Looking to the future, Gizon and his colleagues hope to examine other stars like Kepler 11145123. In our Galaxy alone, there are many stars who’s oscillations can be accurately measured by observing changes in their brightness. As such, the international team hopes to apply their asteroseismology method to other stars observed by Kepler, as well as upcoming missions like TESS and PLATO.

“Just like helioseismology can be used to study the Sun’s magnetic field, asteroseismology can be used to study magnetism on distant stars,” Gizon added. “This is the main message of this study.”

Further Reading: ScienceMag, Max Planck Institute

10 Interesting Facts About Earth

Planet Earth. That shiny blue marble that has fascinated humanity since they first began to walk across its surface. And why shouldn’t it fascinate us? In addition to being our home and the place where life as we know it originated, it remains the only planet we know of where life thrives. And over the course of the past few centuries, we have learned much about Earth, which has only deepened our fascination with it.

But how much does the average person really know about the planet Earth? You’ve lived on Planet Earth all of your life, but how much do you really know about the ground underneath your feet? You probably have lots of interesting facts rattling around in your brain, but here are 10 more interesting facts about Earth that you may, or may not know.

1. Plate Tectonics Keep the Planet Comfortable:

Earth is the only planet in the Solar System with plate tectonics. Basically, the outer crust of the Earth is broken up into regions known as tectonic plates. These are floating on top of the magma interior of the Earth and can move against one another. When two plates collide, one plate will subduct (go underneath another), and where they pull apart, they will allow fresh crust to form.

The Earth's Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org
The Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org

This process is very important, and for a number of reasons. Not only does it lead to tectonic resurfacing and geological activity (i.e. earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation), it is also intrinsic to the carbon cycle. When microscopic plants in the ocean die, they fall to the bottom of the ocean.

Over long periods of time, the remnants of this life, rich in carbon, are carried back into the interior of the Earth and recycled. This pulls carbon out of the atmosphere, which makes sure we don’t suffer a runaway greenhouse effect, which is what happened on Venus. Without the action of plate tectonics, there would be no way to recycle this carbon, and the Earth would become an overheated, hellish place.

2. Earth is Almost a Sphere:

Many people tend to think that the Earth is a sphere. In fact, between the 6th cenury BCE and the modern era, this remained the scientific consensus. But thanks to modern astronomy and space travel, scientists have since come to understand that the Earth is actually shaped like a flattened sphere (aka. an oblate spheroid).

This shape is similar to a sphere, but where the poles are flattened and the equator bulges. In the case of the Earth, this bulge is due to our planet’s rotation. This means that the measurement from pole to pole is about 43 km less than the diameter of Earth across the equator. Even though the tallest mountain on Earth is Mount Everest, the feature that’s furthest from the center of the Earth is actually Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador.

The Earth's layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com
The Earth’s layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com

3. Earth is Mostly Iron, Oxygen and Silicon:

If you could separate the Earth out into piles of material, you’d get 32.1 % iron, 30.1% oxygen, 15.1% silicon, and 13.9% magnesium. Of course, most of this iron is actually located at the core of the Earth. If you could actually get down and sample the core, it would be 88% iron. And if you sampled the Earth’s crust, you’d find that 47% of it is oxygen.

4. 70% of the Earth’s Surface is Covered in Water:

When astronauts first went into the space, they looked back at the Earth with human eyes for the first time. Based on their observations, the Earth acquired the nickname the “Blue Planet:. And it’s no surprise, seeing as how 70% of our planet is covered with oceans. The remaining 30% is the solid crust that is located above sea level, hence why it is called the “continental crust”.

5. The Earth’s Atmosphere Extends to a Distance of 10,000 km:

Earth’s atmosphere is thickest within the first 50 km from the surface or so, but it actually reaches out to about 10,000 km into space. It is made up of five main layers – the Troposphere, the Stratosphere, the Mesosphere, the Thermosphere, and the Exosphere. As a rule, air pressure and density decrease the higher one goes into the atmosphere and the farther one is from the surface.

Winter Solstice
Earth, as viewed from the cabin of the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA

The bulk of the Earth’s atmosphere is down near the Earth itself. In fact, 75% of the Earth’s atmosphere is contained within the first 11 km above the planet’s surface. However, the outermost layer (the Exosphere) is the largest, extending from the exobase – located at the top of the thermosphere at an altitude of about 700 km above sea level – to about 10,000 km (6,200 mi). The exosphere merges with the emptiness of outer space, where there is no atmosphere.

The exosphere is mainly composed of extremely low densities of hydrogen, helium and several heavier molecules – including nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide. The atoms and molecules are so far apart that the exosphere no longer behaves like a gas, and the particles constantly escape into space. These free-moving particles follow ballistic trajectories and may migrate in and out of the magnetosphere or with the solar wind.

Want more planet Earth facts? We’re halfway through. Here come 5 more!

6. The Earth’s Molten Iron Core Creates a Magnetic Field:

The Earth is like a great big magnet, with poles at the top and bottom near to the actual geographic poles. The magnetic field it creates extends thousands of kilometers out from the surface of the Earth – forming a region called the “magnetosphere“. Scientists think that this magnetic field is generated by the molten outer core of the Earth, where heat creates convection motions of conducting materials to generate electric currents.

The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on every day life. The field can be thought of as a huge bubble, protecting us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth in solar winds. It's shaped by winds of particles blowing from the sun called the solar wind, the reason it's flattened on the "sun-side" and swept out into a long tail on the opposite side of the Earth. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
Artist’s impression of the Earth’s protective magnetic field and the dynamo effect in its core that gives rise to it. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Be grateful for the magnetosphere. Without it, particles from the Sun’s solar wind would hit the Earth directly, exposing the surface of the planet to significant amounts of radiation. Instead, the magnetosphere channels the solar wind around the Earth, protecting us from harm. Scientists have also theorized that Mars’ thin atmosphere is due to it having a weak magnetosphere compared to Earth’s, which allowed solar wind to slowly strip it away.

7. Earth Doesn’t Take 24 Hours to Rotate on its Axis:

It actually takes 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4 seconds for the Earth to rotate once completely on its axis, which astronomers refer to as a Sidereal Day. Now wait a second, doesn’t that mean that a day is 4 minutes shorter than we think it is? You’d think that this time would add up, day by day, and within a few months, day would be night, and night would be day.

But remember that the Earth orbits around the Sun. Every day, the Sun moves compared to the background stars by about 1° – about the size of the Moon in the sky. And so, if you add up that little motion from the Sun that we see because the Earth is orbiting around it, as well as the rotation on its axis, you get a total of 24 hours.

This is what is known as a Solar Day, which – contrary to a Sidereal Day – is the amount of time it takes the Sun to return to the same place in the sky. Knowing the difference between the two is to know the difference between how long it takes the stars to show up in the same spot in the sky, and the it takes for the sun to rise and set once.

8. A year on Earth isn’t 365 days:

It’s actually 365.2564 days. It’s this extra .2564 days that creates the need for a Leap Year once ever four years. That’s why we tack on an extra day in February every four years – 2004, 2008, 2012, etc. The exceptions to this rule is if the year in question is divisible by 100 (1900, 2100, etc), unless it divisible by 400 (1600, 2000, etc).

9. Earth has 1 Moon and 2 Co-Orbital Satellites:

As you’re probably aware, Earth has 1 moon (aka. The Moon). Plenty is known about this body and we have written many articles about it, so we won’t go into much detail there. But did you know there are 2 additional asteroids locked into a co-orbital orbits with Earth? They’re called 3753 Cruithne and 2002 AA29, which are part of a larger population of asteroids known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs).

The asteroid known as 3753 Cruithne measures 5 km across, and is sometimes called “Earth’s second moon”. It doesn’t actually orbit the Earth, but has a synchronized orbit with our home planet. It also has an orbit that makes it look like it’s following the Earth in orbit, but it’s actually following its own, distinct path around the Sun.

Meanwhile, 2002 AA29 is only 60 meters across and makes a horseshoe orbit around the Earth that brings it close to the planet every 95 years. In about 600 years, it will appear to circle Earth in a quasi-satellite orbit. Scientists have suggested that it might make a good target for a space exploration mission.

10. Earth is the Only Planet Known to Have Life:

We’ve discovered past evidence of water and organic molecules on Mars, and the building blocks of life on Saturn’s moon Titan. We can see amino acids in nebulae in deep space. And scientists have speculated about the possible existence of life beneath the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Titan. But Earth is the only place life has actually been discovered.

But if there is life on other planets, scientists are building the experiments that will help find it. For instance, NASA just announced the creation of the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), which will spend the coming years going through the data sent back by the Kepler space telescope (and other missions that have yet to be launched) for signs of life on extra-solar planets.

Europa's cracked, icy surface imaged by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in 1998. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.
Europa’s cracked, icy surface imaged by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1998. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.

Giant radio dishes are currently scan distant stars, listening for the characteristic signals of intelligent life reaching out across interstellar space. And newer space telescopes, such as NASA’s James Webb Telescope, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and the European Space Agency’s Darwin mission might just be powerful enough to sense the presence of life on other worlds.

But for now, Earth remains the only place we know of where there’s life. Now that is an interesting fact!

We have written many interesting articles about planet Earth here on Universe Today. Here’s What is the Highest Place on Earth?, What is the Diameter of the Earth?, What is the Closest Planet to Earth?, What is the Surface Temperature of Earth? and The Rotation of the Earth?

Other articles include how fast the Earth rotates, and here’s an article about the closest star to Earth. If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

And there’s even an Astronomy Cast episode on the subject of planet Earth.

What is the Highest Place on Earth?

Whenever the question is asked, what is the highest point on planet Earth?, people naturally assume that the answer is Mt. Everest. In fact, so embedded is the notion that Mt. Everest is the highest point on the world that most people wouldn’t even think twice before answering. And even when we talk of other huge mountains in the Solar System (like Mars’ Olympus Mons), we invariably compare them to Mt. Everest.

But in truth, Everest does not hold the record for being the highest point on Earth. Due to the nature of our planet – which is not shaped like a perfect sphere but an oblate spheroid (i.e. a sphere that bulges at the center) – points that are located along the equator are farther away than those located at the poles. When you factor this in, Everest and the Himalayas find themselves falling a bit short!

Earth as a Sphere:

The understanding that Earth is spherical is believed to have emerged during the 6th century BCE in ancient Greece. While Pythagoras is generally credited with this theory, it is equally likely that it emerged on its own as a result of travel between Greek settlements – where sailors noticed changes in what stars were visible at night based on differences in latitudes.

Earth - Western Hemisphere
Planet Earth, as seen from space above the Western Hemisphere. Credit: Reuters

By the 3rd century BCE, the idea of a spherical Earth began to become articulated as a scientific matter. By measuring the angle cast by shadows in different geographical locations, Eratosthenes – a Greek astronomer from Hellenistic Libya (276–194 BCE) – was able to estimate Earth’s circumference within a 5% – 15% margin of error. With the rise of the Roman Empire and their adoption of Hellenistic astronomy, the view of a spherical Earth became widespread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe.

This knowledge was preserved thanks to the monastic tradition and Scholasticism during the Middle Ages. By the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution (mid 16th – late 18th centuries), the geological and heliocentric views of Earth became accepted as well. With the advent of modern astronomy, precise methods of measurement, and the ability to view Earth from space, our models of its true shape and dimensions have come to be refined considerably.

Modern Models of the Earth:

To clarify matters a little, the Earth is neither a perfect sphere, nor is it flat. Sorry Galileo, and sorry Flat-Earthers (not sorry!), but it’s true. As already noted, it is an oblate spheroid, which is a result of the rotation of the Earth. Basically, its spin results in a flattening at the poles and a bulging at its equatorial. This is true for many bodies in the Solar System (such as Jupiter and Saturn) and even rapidly-spinning stars like Altair.

Data from the Earth2014 global relief model, with distances in distance from the geocentre denoted by color. Credit: Geodesy2000
Data from the Earth2014 global relief model, with distances from the geocenter represented in color. Credit: Geodesy2000

Based on some of the latest measurements, it is estimated that Earth has a polar radius (i.e. from the middle of Earth to the poles) of 6,356.8 km, whereas its equatorial radius (from the center to the equator) is 6,378.1 km. In short, objects located along the equator are 22 km further away from the center of the Earth (geocenter) than objects located at the poles.

Naturally, there are some deviations in the local topography where objects located away from the equator are closer or father away from the center of the Earth than others in the same region. The most notable exceptions are the Mariana Trench – the deepest place on Earth, at 10,911 m (35,797 ft) below local sea level – and Mt. Everest, which is 8,848 meters (29,029 ft) above local sea level. However, these two geological features represent a very minor variation when compared to Earth’s overall shape – 0.17% and 0.14% respectively.

Highest Point on Earth:

To be fair, Mt. Everest is one of the highest points on Earth, with its peak ascending to an altitude of 8,848 meters (29,029 ft) above sea level. However, due to its location within the Himalayan Mountain Chain in Nepal, some 27° and 59 minutes north of the equator, it is actually lower than mountains located in Ecuador.

It is here, where the land is dominated by the Andes mountain chain, that the highest point on planet Earth is located. Known as Mt. Chiborazo, the peak of this mountain reaches an attitude of 6,263.47 meters (20,549.54 ft) above sea level. But because it is located just 1° and 28 minutes south of the equator (at the highest point of the planet’s bulge), it receives a natural boost of about 21 km.

Mount Everest from Kalapatthar. Photo: Pavel Novak
Mount Everest, imaged from Kalapatthar. Credit: Pavel Novak

In terms of how far they are from the geocenter, Everest lies at a distance of 6,382.3 kilometers (3,965.8 miles) from the center of the Earth while Chimborazo reaches to a distance of 6,384.4 kilometers (3,967.1 miles). That’s a difference of about 2.1 km (1.3 miles), which may not seem like much. But if we’re talking about rankings and titles, it pays to be specific.

Naturally, there are those who would stress that Mt. Everest is still the tallest mountain, measured from base to peak. Unfortunately, here too, they would be incorrect. That prize goes to Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano located on the island of Hawaii. Measuring 10,206 meters (33,484 ft) from base to summit, it is the highest mountain in the world. However, since its base is several thousand meters below seat level, we only see the top 4,207 m (13,802 ft) of it.

But if one were to say that Everest was tallest mountain based on its altitude, they would be correct. In terms of its summit’s elevation above sea level, Everest is ranked as being as the tallest mountain in the world. And when it comes to the sheer difficulty of ascending it, Everest will always be ranked no. 1, both in the records books and in the hearts of climbers everywhere!

We have written many interesting articles about the Earth and mountains here at Universe Today. Here’s Planet Earth, What is the Earth’s Diameter?, The Rotation of the Earth, and Mountains: How Are They Formed?

For more information, be sure to check out NASA’s Visible Earth, and “Highest Mountain in the World” at Geology.com.

Astronomy Cast also has a great episode on the subject – Episode 51: Earth.

What is the Diameter of Earth?

For those people who have had the privilege of jet-setting or traveling the globe, its pretty obvious that the world is a pretty big place. When you consider how long it took for human beings to settle every corner of it (~85,000 years, give or take a decade) and how long it took us to explored and map it all out, terms like “small world” cease to have any meaning.

But to complicate matters a little, the diameter of Earth – i.e. how big it is from one end to the other – varies depending on where you are measuring from. Since the Earth is not a perfect sphere, it has a different diameter when measured around the equator than it does when measured from the poles. So what is the Earth’s diameter, measured one way and then the other?

Oblate Spheroid:

Thanks to improvements made in the field of astronomy by the 17th and 18th centuries  – as well as geodesy, a branch of mathematics dealing with the measurement of the Earth – scientists have learned that the Earth is not a perfect sphere. In truth, it is what is known as an “oblate spheroid”, which is a sphere that experiences flattening at the poles.

Data from the Earth2014 global relief model, with distances in distance from the geocentre denoted by color. Credit: Geodesy2000
Data from the Earth2014 global relief model, with distances in distance from the geocentre denoted by color. Credit: Geodesy2000

According to the 2004 Working Group of the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS), Earth experiences a flattening of 0.0033528 at the poles. This flattening is due to Earth’s rotational velocity – a rapid 1,674.4 km/h (1,040.4 mph) – which causes the planet to bulge at the equator.

Equatorial vs Polar Diameter:

Because of this, the diameter of the Earth at the equator is about 43 kilometers (27 mi) larger than the pole-to-pole diameter. As a result, the latest measurements indicate that the Earth has an equatorial diameter of 12,756 km (7926 mi), and a polar diameter of 12713.6 km (7899.86 mi).

In short, objects located along the equator are about 21 km further away from the center of the Earth (geocenter) than objects located at the poles. Naturally, there are some deviations in the local topography where objects located away from the equator are closer or father away from the center of the Earth than others in the same region.

The most notable exceptions are the Mariana Trench – the deepest place on Earth, at 10,911 m (35,797 ft) below local sea level – and Mt. Everest, which is 8,848 meters (29,029 ft) above local sea level. However, these two geological features represent a very minor variation when compared to Earth’s overall shape – 0.17% and 0.14% respectively.

Meanwhile, the highest point on Earth is Mt. Chiborazo. The peak of this mountain reaches an attitude of 6,263.47 meters (20,549.54 ft) above sea level. But because it is located just 1° and 28 minutes south of the equator (at the highest point of the planet’s bulge), it receives a natural boost of about 21 km.

Mean Diameter:

Because of the discrepancy between Earth’s polar and equatorial diameter, astronomers and scientists often employ averages. This is what is known as its “mean diameter”, which in Earth’s case is the sum of its polar and equatorial diameters, which is then divided in half. From this, we get a mean diameter of 12,742 km (7917.5 mi).

The difference in Earth’s diameter has often been important when it comes to planning space launches, the orbits of satellites, and when circumnavigating the globe. Given that it takes less time to pass over the Arctic or Antarctica than it does to swing around the equator, sometimes this is the preferred path.

We have written many interesting articles about the Earth and mountains here at Universe Today. Here’s Planet Earth, The Rotation of the Earth, What is the Highest Point on Earth?, and Mountains: How Are They Formed?

Here’s how the diameter of the Earth was first measured, thousands of years ago. And here’s NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We did an episode of Astronomy Cast just on the Earth. Give it a listen, Episode 51: Earth.

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