The North American Datum of 1927 (NAD 27) is "the horizontal control datum for the United States that was defined by a location and azimuth on the Clarke spheroid of 1866, with origin at (the survey station) Meades Ranch (Kansas)." ... The geoidal height at Meades Ranch was assumed to be zero. "Geodetic positions on the North American Datum of 1927 were derived from the (coordinates of and an azimuth at Meades Ranch) through a readjustment of the triangulation of the entire network in which Laplace azimuths were introduced, and the Bowie method was used." (http://www.ngs.noaa.gov/faq.shtml#WhatDatum ) NAD27 is a local referencing system covering North America.
The North American Datum of 1983 (NAD 83) is "The horizontal control datum for the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America, based on a geocentric origin and the Geodetic Reference System 1980. "This datum, designated as NAD 83 ...is based on the adjustment of 250,000 points including 600 satellite Doppler stations which constrain the system to a geocentric origin." NAD83 may be considered a local referencing system.
WGS 84 is the World Geodetic System of 1984. It is the reference frame used by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and is defined by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) (formerly the National Imagery and Mapping Agency) (formerly the Defense Mapping Agency). WGS 84 is used by DoD for all its mapping, charting, surveying, and navigation needs, including its GPS "broadcast" and "precise" orbits. WGS 84 was defined in January 1987 using Doppler satellite surveying techniques. It was used as the reference frame for broadcast GPS Ephemerides (orbits) beginning January 23, 1987. At 0000 GMT January 2, 1994, WGS 84 was upgraded in accuracy using GPS measurements. The formal name then became WGS 84 (G730), since the upgrade date coincided with the start of GPS Week 730. It became the reference frame for broadcast orbits on June 28, 1994. At 0000 GMT September 30, 1996 (the start of GPS Week 873), WGS 84 was redefined again and was more closely aligned with International Earth Rotation Service (IERS) Terrestrial Reference Frame (ITRF) 94. It is now formally called WGS 84 (G873). WGS 84 (G873) was adopted as the reference frame for broadcast orbits on January 29, 1997. (http://www.ngs.noaa.gov/faq.shtml#WGS84 )
The WGS84 datum, which is almost identical to the NAD83 datum used in North America, is the only world referencing system in place today. WGS84 is the default standard datum for coordinates stored in recreational and commercial GPS units.
Users of GPS are cautioned that they must always check the datum of the maps they are using. To correctly enter, display, and to store map related map coordinates, the datum of the map must be entered into the GPS map datum field.
See related terms: (shape of the earth, geoid, ellipsoid, reference datum ) For more detail - see http://kartoweb.itc.nl/geometrics/Reference%20surfaces/body.htm
In common usage, elevations are often cited in height above sea level, although what “sea level” actually means is a more complex issue than might at first be thought: the height of the sea surface at any one place and time is a result of numerous effects, including waves, wind and currents, atmospheric pressure, tides, topography, and even differences in the strength of gravity due to the presence of mountains etc.
For the purpose of measuring the height of objects on land, the usual datum used is Mean Sea Level. This is determined by measuring the height of the sea surface over a long period (preferably around 18 years, to account for all the astronomical effects that contribute to tide levels). This allows an average sea level to be determined, with the effects of waves, tides, and short-term changes in wind and currents removed. It will not remove the effects of local gravity strength, and so the height of MSL, relative to a geodetic datum, will vary around the world, and even around one country. For this reason, a country will choose the mean sea level at one specific point to be used as the standard “sea level” for all mapping and surveying in that country. (For example, in Great Britain, the national vertical datum, Ordnance Datum Newlyn, is based on what was mean sea level at Newlyn in Cornwall between 1915 and 1921).
A different principle is used when choosing a datum for nautical charts. For safety reasons, a mariner must be able to know the minimum depth of water that could occur at any point. For this reason, depths and tides on a nautical chart are measured relative to chart datum, which is defined to be a level below which tide rarely falls. Exactly how this is chosen depends on the tidal regime in the area being charted and on the policy of the hydrographic office producing the chart in question; a typical definition is Lowest Astronomical Tide (the lowest tide predictable from based the effects of gravity), or Mean Lower Low Water (the average lowest tide of each day), although MSL is sometimes used in waters with very low tidal ranges.
Conversely, if a ship is to safely pass under a low bridge or overhead power cable, the mariner must know the minimum clearance between the masthead and the obstruction, which will occur at high tide. Consequently, bridge clearances etc are given relative to a datum based on high tide, such as Highest Astronomical Tide or Mean High Water Springs.
While the use of sea-level as a datum is useful for geologically recent topographic features, sea level has not stayed constant throughout geological time, so is less useful when measuring very long-term processes. In some situations sea level does not apply at all — for instance for mapping Mars' surface — forcing the use of a different "zero elevation", such as mean radius.
A geodetic vertical datum takes some specific zero point, and computes elevations based on the geodetic model being used, without further reference to sea levels. Usually, the starting reference point is a tide gauge, so at that point the geodetic and tidal datums might match, but due to sea level variations, the two scales may not match elsewhere. An example of a gravity-based geodetic datum is NAVD88, used in North America, which is referenced to a point in Quebec, Canada. Ellipsoid-based datums such as WGS84, GRS80 or NAD83 use a theoretical surface that may differ significantly from the geoid.