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Height above mean sea level (AMSL) is the elevation (on the ground) or altitude (in the air) of an object, relative to the average sea level datum. AMSL height is used extensively in radio (both in broadcasting and other telecommunications uses) to determine the coverage area a station will be able to reach. It is also used in aviation, where some heights are recorded and reported with respect to mean sea level (MSL) (contrast with flight level), and in the atmospheric sciences.
The concept of a "mean sea level" is in itself rather artificial, because it is not possible to determine a figure for mean sea level for the entire planet, and it varies quite a lot even on a much smaller scale. This is because the sea is in constant motion, affected by the high and low pressure zones above it, the tides, local gravitational differences, and so forth. The best one can do is to pick a spot and calculate the mean sea level at that point and use it as a datum. For example, the Ordnance Survey uses a height datum based on the measurements of mean sea level at a particular gauge at Newlyn, Cornwall from 1915 to 1921 for their maps of Great Britain, and this datum is actually some 80 cm different from the mean sea level reading obtained on the other side of the country. An alternative is to base height measurements on an ellipsoid of the entire earth, which is what systems such as GPS do. In aviation, the ellipsoid known as World Geodetic System 84 is increasingly used to define mean sea level. Another alternative is to use a geoid based datum such as NAVD88.
When referring to geographic features such as mountains on a topographic map, variations in elevation are shown by contour lines. The elevation of a mountain denotes the highest point or summit and is typically illustrated as a small circle on a topo map with the AMSL height shown in either metres or feet or both.
In the rare case that a location is below sea level, elevation AMSL is negative. For one such case see Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.
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