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What Does Height Really Mean? Part IV: GPS Heighting

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This is the final paper in a four-part series examining the fundamental question, "What does the word height really mean?" The creation of this series was motivated by the National Geodetic Survey's (NGS) embarking on a height modernization program as a result of which NGS will publish measured ellipsoid heights and computed Helmert orthometric heights for vertical bench marks. Practicing surveyors will therefore encounter Helmert orthometric heights computed from Global Positioning System (GPS) ellipsoid heights and geoid heights determined from geoid models as their published vertical control coordinate, rather than adjusted orthometric heights determined by spirit leveling. It is our goal to explain the meanings of these terms in hopes of eliminating confusion and preventing mistakes that may arise over this change. The first paper in the series reviewed reference ellipsoids and mean sea level datums. The second paper reviewed the physics of heights culminating in a simple development of the geoid in order to explain why mean sea level stations are not all at the same orthometric height. The third paper introduced orthometric heights, geopotential numbers, dynamic heights, normal heights, and height systems. This fourth paper is composed of two sections. The first considers the stability of the geoid as a datum. The second is a review of current best practices for heights measured with the Global Positioning System (GPS), essentially taking the form of a commentary on NGS' guidelines for high-accuracy ellipsoid and orthometric height determination using GPS.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: September 1, 2006

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  • Surveying and Land Information Science (SaLIS) is the official publication of the American Association of Geodetic Surveying (AAGS) and the Geographic and Land Information Society (GLIS).

    SaLIS is a scientific journal devoted to reporting research and new work conducted to advance geodetic surveying, land surveying, large-scale mapping, and geographic information systems designed to advance the development and management of the cadastral parcel data layer and other land information applications. SaLIS publishes research articles, technical papers, technical notes, papers on the current state of surveying education, surveying history, book reviews, and current literature reviews. Every four years, the journal publishes the U.S. Report to the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG). The Proceedings of the Surveying Teachers Conference are published bi-annually.

    For information about AAGS visit
    For information about GLIS visit

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