Climate Change Has Shifted the Axis of the Earth

Earth's Rotation

Loss of water on land through ice melting and human-caused factors is changing the movement of the North and South poles.

Glacial melting due to global warming is likely the cause of a shift in the movement of the poles that occurred in the 1990s.

The locations of the North and South poles aren’t static, unchanging spots on our planet. The axis Earth spins around—or more specifically the surface that invisible line emerges from—is always moving due to processes scientists don’t completely understand.  The way water is distributed on Earth’s surface is one factor that drives the drift.

Melting glaciers redistributed enough water to cause the direction of polar wander to turn and accelerate eastward during the mid-1990s, according to a new study in Geophysical Research Letters, AGU’s journal for high-impact, short-format reports with immediate implications spanning all Earth and space sciences.

“The faster ice melting under global warming was the most likely cause of the directional change of the polar drift in the 1990s,” said Shanshan Deng, a researcher at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and an author of the new study.

The Earth spins around an axis kind of like a top, explains Vincent Humphrey, a climate scientist at the University of Zurich who was not involved in this research. If the weight of a top is moved around, the spinning top would start to lean and wobble as its rotational axis changes. The same thing happens to the Earth as weight is shifted from one area to the other.

Earth Poles 1990s Turning Point

Melting of glaciers in Alaska, Greenland, the Southern Andes, Antarctica, the Caucasus and the Middle East accelerated in the mid-90s, becoming the main driver pushing Earth’s poles into a sudden and rapid drift toward 26°E at a rate of 3.28 millimeters (0.129 inches) per year. Color intensity on the map shows where changes in water stored on land (mostly as ice) had the strongest effect on the movement of the poles from April 2004 to June 2020. Inset graphs plot the change in glacier mass (black) and the calculated change in water on land (blue) in the regions of largest influence. Credit: Deng et al (2021) Geophysical Research Letters/AGU

Researchers have been able to determine the causes of polar drifts starting from 2002 based on data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), a joint mission by NASA and the German Aerospace Center, launched with twin satellites that year and a follow up mission in 2018. The mission gathered information on how mass is distributed around the planet by measuring uneven changes in gravity at different points.

Previous studies released on the GRACE mission data revealed some of the reasons for later changes in direction. For example, research has determined more recent movements of the North Pole away from Canada and toward Russia to be caused by factors like molten iron in the Earth’s outer core. Other shifts were caused in part by what’s called the terrestrial water storage change, the process by which all the water on land—including frozen water in glaciers and groundwater stored under our continents—is being lost through melting and groundwater pumping.

The authors of the new study believed that this water loss on land contributed to the shifts in the polar drift in the past two decades by changing the way mass is distributed around the world. In particular, they wanted to see if it could also explain changes that occurred in the mid-1990s.

In 1995, the direction of polar drift shifted from southward to eastward. The average speed of drift from 1995 to 2020 also increased about 17 times from the average speed recorded from 1981 to 1995.

Polar Drift

Shifts in the geographic location of Earth’s North and South poles is called polar drift, or true polar wander. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech

Now researchers have found a way to wind modern pole tracking analysis backward in time to learn why this drift occurred. The new research calculates the total land water loss in the 1990s before the GRACE mission started.

“The findings offer a clue for studying past climate-driven polar motion,” said Suxia Liu, a hydrologist at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the corresponding author of the new study. “The goal of this project, funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China is to explore the relationship between the water and polar motion.”

Water loss and polar drift

Using data on glacier loss and estimations of ground water pumping, Liu and her colleagues calculated how the water stored on land changed. They found that the contributions of water loss from the polar regions is the main driver of polar drift, with contributions from water loss in nonpolar regions. Together, all this water loss explained the eastward change in polar drift.

“I think it brings an interesting piece of evidence to this question,” said Humphrey. “It tells you how strong this mass change is—it’s so big that it can change the axis of the Earth.”

Humphrey said the change to the Earth’s axis isn’t large enough that it would affect daily life. It could change the length of day we experience, but only by milliseconds.

The faster ice melting couldn’t entirely explain the shift, Deng said. While they didn’t analyze this specifically, she speculated that the slight gap might be due to activities involving land water storage in non-polar regions, such as unsustainable groundwater pumping for agriculture.

Humphrey said this evidence reveals how much direct human activity can have an impact on changes to the mass of water on land. Their analysis revealed large changes in water mass in areas like California, northern Texas, the region around Beijing and northern India, for example—all areas that have been pumping large amounts of groundwater for agricultural use.

“The ground water contribution is also an important one,” Humphrey said. “Here you have a local water management problem that is picked up by this type of analysis.”

Liu said the research has larger implications for our understanding of land water storage earlier in the 20th century. Researchers have 176 years of data on polar drift. By using some of the methods highlighted by her and her colleagues, it could be possible to use those changes in direction and speed to estimate how much land water was lost in past years.

Reference: “Polar Drift in the 1990s Explained by Terrestrial Water Storage Changes” by S. Deng, S. Liu, X. Mo, L. Jiang and P. Bauer‐Gottwein, 22 March 2021, .
DOI: 10.1029/2020GL092114

33 Comments on "Climate Change Has Shifted the Axis of the Earth"

  1. I never heard one thing mentioned about all the oil that’s been pulled from the earth (mother earth’s blood)she dieing you people have about drained her of her blood (oil)the core of the earth is to hot the there’s not enough oil in the earth to keep it cooled down so it just keep getting hotter causing more heat to push out from the core heating our waters melting polar caps etc… Now this is what it’s all come to and it will get worse and it will kill us all we must reverse this and start by pumping the oil back into the earth cool her down then start dealing with the damaged earth maybe the oil being put back in the earth might slow things down I don’t know but what I do know is be need to start somewhere and try to say this planet all our countries must work together to save this planet in order for us all to survive we must all unite and become one it’s the only way start putting some of that oil back in the earth that might be a big start you may think not but how do we really know unless we try it this earth needs to cool down and slow down it may give us more time to work on earth other issues I truly believe all the oil that has been pulled out of this earth over heating earth core throwing everything off balance mother earth is dieing that why all this is happening she does we die as well I doubt that NASA finds us a planet in time to save all of us I pray the Lord be with us all Amen.

    • Clyde Spencer | April 24, 2021 at 2:40 pm | Reply

      Please go back on your meds before you hurt yourself!

    • Torbjörn Larsson | April 26, 2021 at 4:22 am | Reply

      The ice melt has – with global ocean warming – contributed to a 300 mm or 0.3 m raise. Let’s say half is ice melt water, so with oceans 70 % of Earth’s surface or ~ 4*10^11 m^2 we have ~ 0.3*4*10^11 m^3 or 10^11 mt melt water.

      The oil production the last century has been < 100*80 million barrels [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_oil_production ] or with a barrell ~ 0.1 mt the oil production could at most have been 10^9 mt.

      Oil moved mass is insignificant compared to water moved mass.

      Also, gratuitous superstition – please keep such personal.

  2. Clyde Spencer | April 24, 2021 at 2:36 pm | Reply

    The movement of our axis of rotation is a combination of normal top-like precession, and the changes in the distribution of mass from melting ice and isostatic rebound. However, the recent changes are small compared to the historical past! See the following graph: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Post-Glacial_Sea_Level.png

    The last glaciation started to wane almost 21 thousand years ago. The initial melt-water pulse from about 15,000 to 7,000 years ago was significantly greater and would have had a much greater change on the distribution of mass than what Earth has experienced in the last 7,000 years, let alone the last couple of decades. To put everything in perspective, nothing unusual with respect to melting has happened recently that can be uniquely attributed to industrialization, as evidenced by the change in sea level.

    The NASA/JPL/Caltech illustration in the article is deceptive; it suggests that the north pole was located in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains in 1995.

    The reference and link to the impact of molten iron in the outer core refers to the wandering of the MAGNETIC pole, which is unrelated to the drift of the GEOGRAPHIC poles! While driven by the Earth’s rotation, they are different effects. This is a mix of limes and oranges.

    • Clyde Spencer | April 24, 2021 at 3:03 pm | Reply

      After reading the actual research article, I note that there is no mention of the outer core or magnetic pole movement.

      Another noteworthy point is that in section 5 they remark, “Accelerated ice melting in glacial areas cannot explain the entire polar drift in the 1990s, especially for peak‐to‐peak amplitudes.” They follow that up with, “Thus, polar motion is more sensitive to TWS changes in mid‐latitude areas than in other areas.” Thus, this article is more about aquifer draw-down in agriculture, and perhaps the NASA documented greening of Earth from increased CO2, than it is about climate change or glacier melting.

      • Torbjörn Larsson | April 26, 2021 at 4:32 am | Reply

        I’m not sure how historical changes matters here, there has been no precise pole placement or melt measurements – this is what is happening now. The geomagnetic poles were not studied I think, this is about the spin axis tilt.

        [You also seem to confuse an illustration of a model with the article text on specific rates. If it isn’t in the illustration text, it is not relevant for it.]

        To nitpick, of course man made global warming and its effects are unusual – it happens at an unprecedented rate and threatens our crops, for example – but the ocean rise has been 0.3 m total and the newest estimate is that 1 billion people have been forced to migrate from coastal areas 2050 [ https://phys.org/news/2021-04-human-exodus-bangladesh-due-sea-level.html ].

        “Rising sea levels and more powerful cyclonic storms, phenomena driven by the warming of oceans due to climate change, puts at immediate or potential risk an estimated 680 million people living in low-lying coastal zones (a number projected to reach more than one billion by 2050). In nations like Bangladesh these populations are already moving to escape sea-level rise.”

        • Clyde Spencer | April 27, 2021 at 5:09 pm | Reply

          You state that “… there has been no precise pole placement or melt measurements …” [Historical measurements of the right ascension and declination of Polaris can establish the past spin axes.] Yet, you are confident that “… of course man made global warming and its effects are unusual – it happens at an unprecedented rate and threatens our crops, …” So, now the historical measurements are good enough to claim “unprecedented?” Actually, I think that past astronomical measurements are of higher quality than temperature measurements!

          Bangladesh is experiencing “unprecedented” sea level rise because they have high rates of subsidence!

  3. CICLAMIO LEITE BARRETO | April 24, 2021 at 3:25 pm | Reply

    In the animation, Earth is rotating in the wrong sense, and the continents appear as their mirror image. That is a rude error.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | April 26, 2021 at 4:34 am | Reply

      Nice catch! I didn’t know gifs could be flipped like that, but there you go – it looks like an inadvertent error in the page script.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | April 26, 2021 at 4:35 am | Reply

      Also, you may mean “coarse” or “huge” error rather than the emotional “rude” descriptor.

  4. MAYBE WE NEED MORE COWBELL. THERE IS NO OTHER PLANET,NO GOD OF MAN,NO BACK DOOR. AINT NOBODY COMIN TO SAVE WHAT THEY DROPPED OFF IN THE FIRST PLACE. ALWAYS REMEMBER. PEOPLE ARE ONLY IMPORTANT TOO THEMSELVES AND THIS IS THE REWARD FOR BEING SUCH EGO BASED MISHAPS. MAYBE REDISTRIBUTION OF ALL THE BIGFOOTS OR EVERYBODY SETTING THEIR TRASH OUT ON THE SAME DAY WILL RESULT IN A TEMPORARY ALIGNMENT. IT AINT STAR SEARCH BABY! NOBODY WINS THIS CONTEST. SEE YAH IN THE MOVIES!
    OVER AND OUT,EARF!

  5. MEANWHILE THE RIGHT WHALES ARE TANGLED IN LOBSTER LINES AND 50 MILE LONG
    TROLLING NETS. OCEANS FILLED WITH POOPIE DOOPS AND PLASTIC, CRIUSE SHIPS OUT NUMBER KRILL*FLIGHT PATHS RESEMBLE MIGRATORY SPERM*THERE IS A POST OFFICE ON THE SOUTH POLE*RESORTS AND DAY SPAS ON THE BACKS OF ENDANGERED ANIMALS*WHALE HUNTING IT ALL IS ABOUT AS PEACEFUL AS THE ORIGINAL TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. THE UNIVERSE CALLED AND IT WANTS ITS PLANET BACK

  6. You all buy this crap. OMG

  7. *slow clap* because if I move to fast you might miss what’s happening. There’s that number 17 again and are we really trusting China still? I hate to quote the guy in the mask that keeps hiding from the reporters but “C’MON MAN”, ain’t nobody buying what you’re selling

  8. If you spin a boiled egg on a table top it spins much faster than an unboiled egg. If the earth’s frozen water becomes liquid that would definitley affect the rotational speed of the planet. The gyroscopic stability of earths rotation would be affected as our rotation slows down causing the poles to wander like a spinning top slowing down. As the poles loose frozen solid mass and this mass becomes liquid and moves towards the equater, pole wandering will increase. The increased size of the ocean would magnify the effect the moon has on earth as more liquid is affected by the tidal pull of the moon. The bulge of the ocean that exists between the earth and the moon would increase making the earth’s shape less symetrical and more prone to wobble. Tectonic plates will be pulled and pushed along new lines of force.
    Earth quakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and weather systems will be aggravated.
    Cause and effect as they say.

  9. This is y ppl r so dum..It may be the fact that the earth’s axis is tilting (actually the angle to which we are positioned to the sun from our viewpoint, which I’ve always said was caused by our orbit hulu hooping around the sun , because the sun travels around the milky way like mimicking a radio wave) and wen ur close to the fire it is warmer…oh BTW it also explains the dry bands over Sahara and polar shift…wen we above sun equator n magnetic pole one charge , ‘s equator n pole the other charge..uw hnd

    • Torbjörn Larsson | April 26, 2021 at 4:41 am | Reply

      I fail to see why “dum[b]” has anything to do with useful science.

      It has a lot to do with reactions to published facts, tho’.

  10. Gerald Cline | April 25, 2021 at 6:51 pm | Reply

    Good god these comments are just something else

  11. @lori WTF?

  12. How much are they paying you to write this fraudulent drivel? Everybody knows existing earth axis wobble CAUSES climate change – NOT vice versa…climate change ideology is politics – NOT science. Just study the ICE AGES – we are in thaw love….

    • Torbjörn Larsson | April 26, 2021 at 4:43 am | Reply

      When did mainstream, useful science became “fraudulent” and “drivel”!?

      It didn’t.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | April 26, 2021 at 4:44 am | Reply

      I forgot: if you think you have a valid hypothesis, please publish it through peer review and it may be something. As of now, it is just “fraudulent drivel”. 😀

  13. Gemini Musings | April 26, 2021 at 6:56 am | Reply

    As with the whole climate change mantra, the “cause and effect” are being reversed. The earth’s axis changes on a regular basis and may, in fact, actually flip (now THAT will be an event… motors turning into generators!).

    The earth’s axis naturally changes and climate is impacted accordingly, as it should.

    The sun warms, the planet warms, the oceans warm and release gasses and water vapor, including CO2. The planet is protecting itself. Very simple.

    And remember, fossil fuel is simply stored solar energy; Mother Nature is quite the clever Lady!

  14. GOD is the answer not science

  15. Please tell me ur trolling?? Oil does not “cool down the core”… Im not sure where you heard that but its bullocks. Ive heard it all now…smdh

  16. Joaquin Gault | April 26, 2021 at 1:04 pm | Reply

    There is no mention of the growth of Antarctic ice. Why would warming affect only Arctic Ice? And, why is Antarctic ice growing if global temperature is rising? The earth is 4.5 billion years old. There have been scores of ages of cooling and warming (ice core sampling) that did not involve human activity. The thermometer was invented circa 1709. Global temperature record data begins circa 1880. 140 years of data is statistically insignificant in the light of 4.5 billion years of Earth history. Forces that drive climate are far beyond human ability to understand them yet. We are temporary passengers on this planetary vehicle. It is arrogant to believe that we (humans) can significantly impact planetary alignment and conditions, biological evolution, or the effects of the sun, moon, and other galactic forces.

  17. Darrell Long | April 27, 2021 at 9:00 am | Reply

    What about the axis shift due to major earth quakes and volcanic eruption

  18. the article tries to crush the theory of axis shift that is causing global warming , but now they have turned the idea on its head saying axis shift is because of global warming which is utter crap , its just these people still want to make money out of nonsense , receive grants make the wealthy more richer and tax the poor – another natural circle of the earth which happened thousands of years ago when we were still living in caves

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