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Do You Call Yourself a Geodesist?
  • UNAVCO staff: Linda Rowan and Sarah Kittross, UNAVCO Summer Intern 2015
  • Location: Boulder, Colorado

Written by Linda Rowan
28 July 2015


UNAVCO, a non-profit university-governed consortium that facilitates geoscience research and education using geodesy, asked 11 geoscientists at our March 2014 Science Workshop, “Do you call yourself a geodesist?” The answers were diverse and highlight the expanding research opportunities of geoscientists plus the expanding use of geodesy and geodetic tools in other fields of science and engineering. Here we provide a link to a summary video that conveys what geodesists do, what geodesy is, and what geodetic tools are being used. We also provide a link to a compilation of the full answers to the question from the 11 geoscientists, for those interested in their full responses.

What is Geodesy?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines geodesy (1) as “a branch of applied mathematics concerned with the determination of the size and shape of the earth and the exact positions of points on its surface and with the description of variations of its gravity field.” They state the origin of the word as “Greek geōdaisia, from geō- ge- for earth + daiesthai to divide” and indicate its first known use was in 1853.

Dictionary.com suggests a longer history and describes the origin of geodesy (2) as “1560s, "surveying," from Modern Latin geodaesia, from Greek geodaisia "division of the earth;" ultimately from ge "earth" (see Gaia ) + stem of daiein "divide."

Dictionary.com gives a definition of the science of geodesy (3) as “The scientific study of the size and shape of the Earth, its field of gravity, and such varying phenomena as the motion of the magnetic poles and the tides.”

So a geodesist is someone who studies the science of geodesy. However many geoscientists use geodetic tools to study phenomena in other fields of research. Although these scientists would not call themselves geodesists, they do use geodesy for their research.

Some of the geodetic tools used by geoscientists include: the Global Positioning System (GPS), the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), radar, LiDAR, terrestrial laser scanning, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), interferometric SAR (InSAR), tiltmeters, seismometers, accelerometers, pore pressure gauges, strainmeters, very long baseline interferometry (VLBI), satellite laser ranging (SLR), Doppler Orbitography and Radiopositioning Integrated by Satellite (DORIS), gravimeters, gradiometers, tide gauges, borehole instruments, meteorology instruments, and related earth-observing instruments on satellites or other platforms.

Video of geoscientists addressing the question, “Do you call yourself a geodesist?” from interviews conducted at the 2014 UNAVCO Science Workshop near Boulder, Colorado. Video edited by Sarah Kittross, 2015 UNAVCO Student Intern.

Expansion of Geodesy

Geodesy and geodetic tools support research covering the entire planet from the core to the uppermost atmosphere, with a focus on the structure and dynamics of the crust, hydrosphere (i.e. state of aquifers and rivers), cryosphere (i.e., state of ice sheets and glaciers), oceans, and the atmosphere. On a global scale, geodetic efforts support defining Earth’s shape, mass distribution and rotation (i.e., information that is essential for defining the International Terrestrial Reference Frame for timing, navigation, communication and other purposes) and understanding global influences of plate tectonics, oceanic changes and atmospheric changes.

The expansion of geodesy and geodetic tools thus supports research in many sciences, including geophysics, tectonophysics, geodynamics, space physics, geology, geomorphology, seismology, hydrology, volcanology, glaciology, paleontology, paleoseismology, structural geology, meteorology, ecology, archaeology, oceanography, geography, soil science, atmospheric science, and snow science.

Related Links


  • 1. geodesy. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Inc. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/geodesy (accessed: July 16, 2015).
  • 2. geodesy. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/geodesy (accessed: July 16, 2015).
  • 3. geodesy. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® Science Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Company. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/geodesy (accessed: July 16, 2015).

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