Equatorial bulge

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An equatorial bulge is a bulge which a planet may have around its equator, distorting it into an oblate spheroid. The Earth has an equatorial bulge of 42.72 km (26.5 miles) due to its rotation: its diameter measured across the equatorial plane (12756.28 km, 7,927 miles) is 42.72 km more than that measured between the poles (12713.56 km, 7,900 miles). To identify the Earth's radius, these numbers must be divided by two. I.e, anyone on either pole may be 21.36 km closer to the earth's centrepoint than if standing on the equator.

An often-cited result of Earth's equatorial bulge is that the highest point on Earth, measured from the center outwards, is the peak of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, rather than Mount Everest. But since the ocean, like the Earth and the atmosphere, bulges, Chimborazo is not as high above sea level as Everest is.


The equilibrium as a balance of energies

Gravity tends to contract a celestial body into a perfect sphere, the shape for which all the mass is as close to the center of gravity as possible. Rotation causes a distortion from this spherical shape; a common measure of the distortion is the flattening (sometimes called ellipticity or oblateness), which can depend on a variety of factors including the size, angular velocity, density, and elasticity.

To get a feel for the type of equilibrium that is involved, imagine someone seated in a spinning swivel chair, with weights in their hands. If the person in the chair pulls the weights towards them, they are doing work and their rotational kinetic energy increases. The increase of rotation rate is so strong that at the faster rotation rate the required centripetal force is larger than with the starting rotation rate.

Something analogous to this occurs in planet formation. Matter first coalesces into a slowly rotating disk-shaped distribution, and collisions and friction convert kinetic energy to heat, which allows the disk to self-gravitate into a very oblate spheroid.

As long as the proto-planet is still too oblate to be in equilibrium, the release of gravitational potential energy on contraction keeps driving the increase in rotational kinetic energy. As the contraction proceeds the rotation rate keeps going up, hence the required force for further contraction keeps going up. There is a point where the increase of rotational kinetic energy on further contraction would be larger than the release of gravitational potential energy. The contraction process can only proceed up to that point, so it halts there.

As long as there is no equilibrium there can be violent convection, and as long as there is violent convection friction can convert kinetic energy to heat, draining rotational kinetic energy from the system. When the equilibrium state has been reached then large scale conversion of kinetic energy to heat ceases. In that sense the equilibrium state is the lowest state of energy that can be reached.

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