Does your weight change between the poles and the equator? (Intermediate)

Hi, I'm a seventh grade student in Washington. I had this question: The Earth is spinning, so there is more centrifugal force near the Equator of the earth than near the North Pole, because the Equator is spinning faster. So if you lived on the Equator wouldn't you weigh less than someone who lived on the North Pole, beacause there is more force trying to pull you away from earth? Thanks for your time and effort. I really appreciate it.

You are right, that because of centrifugal force you will weigh a tiny amount less at the Equator than at the poles. Try not to think of centrifugal force as a force though; what's really going on is that objects which are in motion like to go in a straight line and so it takes some force to make them go round in a circle. (Centrifugal force is a fictitious force that shows up in the equations of motion for an object in a rotating reference frame - such as on Earth's Equator.)

So some of the force of gravity (centripetal force) is being used to make you go around in a circle at the Equator (instead of flying off into space) while at the pole this is not needed. The centripetal acceleration at the Equator is given by four times pi squared times the radius of the Earth divided by the period of rotation squared (4×π2×R/T2). Earth's period of rotation is a sidereal day (86164.1 seconds, slightly less than 24 hours), and the equatorial radius of the Earth is about 6378 km. This means that the centripetal acceleration at the Equator is about 0.03 m/s2 (metres per second squared). Compare this to the acceleration due to gravity which is about 9.8 m/s2 and you can see how tiny an effect this is - you would weigh about 0.3% less at the equator than at the poles!

There is an additional effect due to the oblateness of the Earth. The Earth is not exactly spherical but rather is a little bit like a "squashed" sphere (technically, an oblate spheroid), with the radius at the Equator slightly larger than the radius at the poles. (This shape can be explained by the effect of centrifugal acceleration on the material that makes up the Earth, exactly as described above.) This has the effect of slightly increasing your weight at the poles (since you are close to the centre of the Earth and the gravitational force depends on distance) and slightly decreasing it at the equator.

Taking into account both of the above effects, the gravitational acceleration is 9.78 m/s2 at the equator and 9.83 m/s2 at the poles, so you weigh about 0.5% more at the poles than at the equator.

Here are some other pages which discuss this phenomenon:

This page was last updated by Sean Marshall on September 20, 2015.

About the Author

Karen Masters

Karen Masters

Karen was a graduate student at Cornell from 2000-2005. She went on to work as a researcher in galaxy redshift surveys at Harvard University, and is now on the Faculty at the University of Portsmouth back in her home country of the UK. Her research lately has focused on using the morphology of galaxies to give clues to their formation and evolution. She is the Project Scientist for the Galaxy Zoo project.

Twitter:  @KarenLMasters
Website:  http://icg.port.ac.uk/~mastersk/

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