Is sea level of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans the same? If so why are locks required in Panama?

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Sea level is about 20 cm higher on the Pacific side than the Atlantic due to the water being less dense on average on the Pacific side and due to the prevailing weather and ocean conditions. Such sea level differences are common across many short sections of land dividing ocean basins. The 20 cm difference business is determined by geodetic levelling from one side to the other. A datum called Panama Canal Datum is used. When you use spirit levelling you follow a 'level' surface (to our perceptions, see 1) which will be parallel to the geoid (which is geometrically a 'lumpy' surface). The geoid is the surface of constant gravitational potential (plus a 'centrifugal potential' term) which on average coincides with the sea surface i.e. a 'level' surface in everyday language. The 20 cm difference at Panama is not unique. There are similar 'jumps' elsewhere e.g. Skagerrak, Indonesian straits. If the canal was open sea and not locks (i.e. if somehow a deep open cutting had been made rather ... more
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