On the U.S. Forest Service’s map, Mount Whitney is 14,495 feet tall. On the U.S. Geological Survey map, it is 14,491 feet tall. And, in the National Geodetic Survey’s records, Whitney is 14,497 feet tall. Who is right? It’s the Geodetic Survey, according to the agency’s top officials and other federal officials. The Geodetic Survey is the government’s official mountain-measuring agency, so most federal officials—including the Geological Survey—agree it is probably the closest to being correct. However, federal officials say they cannot financially justify changing many thousands of maps for just a few feet. Why the different measurements? The confusion starts with sea level, which is a moving target. The Pacific Ocean’s level is more than 3 feet higher than the Atlantic’s. In the late 1980s, American and Canadian researchers chose the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway as sea level. It was considered both a scientific and political compromise for North America. At the top of Whitney, there are several bench marks established on boulders of varying height. The Geodetic Survey believes it has chosen the highest boulder.
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