I'm trying to understand why we need datums other than WGS84. Since GPS coordinates are relative to the WGS84 ellipsoid what is the advantage of having other datums like for example NAD83. I understand that other datums are locally a closer approximation to the earths topological surface - but when is this advantageous in real life?
I feel the answer may be in this term from the wikipedia entry for Geodetic Datum, but still unclear how you would create location references to NAD83 without a GPS.
"A reference datum is a known and constant surface which is used to describe the location of unknown points on the Earth. Since reference datums can have different radii and different center points, a specific point on the Earth can have substantially different coordinates depending on the datum used to make the measurement. There are hundreds of locally developed reference datums around the world, usually referenced to some convenient local reference point. Contemporary datums, based on increasingly accurate measurements of the shape of the Earth, are intended to cover larger areas. The most common reference Datums in use in North America are NAD27, NAD83, and WGS 84.
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, as sufficient gravity data was not available, and this was needed to relate surface measurements to the datum. "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 (GRS80). "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."