State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

, ,

Melting Glaciers Have Shifted the Earth’s Axis

In the 1990s, the Earth’s axis underwent a major shift. It is normal for the Earth’s axis to move by a few centimeters each year. But, in the 1990s, the direction of polar drift shifted suddenly and the rate of the drift accelerated. The reason for this sudden change was previously unclear, but a team of scientists in Beijing recently published a paper that shows that the main driver of the change in direction of the axial shift was glacier melt caused by global warming.

A photograph shows Earth from space.
Earth as seen from a satellite. Source: NASA/Goddard Flight Center

The Earth’s spin axis is the figurative line about which the Earth rotates. The poles, north and south, are situated at either end of the spin axis. By contrast, the magnetic poles — the ones you can find using a compass — are usually offset from the geographic poles, and their location shifts with the magnetic field.

“The Earth rotates around its axis somewhat like a spinning top,” explained Suxia Liu in an interview with GlacierHub. “If the weight from one area is moved to another area, the spinning top will start to lean, causing the rotation axis to change.” Liu co-led the paper with colleague Shanshan Deng at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Bernhard Steinberger, a researcher at the GFZ German Research Centers for Geosciences who did not work on this paper, explained how glaciers influence mass distribution. “The Earth always orients itself relative to the pole in a way to move masses as far as possible away from the pole,” he wrote in an interview with GlacierHub. “As an example, if there is a glacier growing on Greenland, the Earth’s orientation will change in such a way that Greenland is further away from the pole. If a glacier melts on Greenland, it would change in the opposite direction.”

Prior to human-caused forces, the primary drivers of polar drift were ocean currents and the movements of the molten rock deep below the Earth’s surface. The research team reanalyzed existing data to determine what role terrestrial water storage — how water is dispersed above Earth’s surface and in oceans and groundwater — played in the shift. They determined that the key driver of the directional change was glacier melt, and the change in mass distribution that arose from it.

Most of the world’s glaciers are above ground, and when these glaciers melt, the water that they contain moves into bodies of water. “Shifting water storage away from above-ground glaciers in one area on the Earth’s surface to another results in the polar shift due to the weight change,” said Liu.

An icy white expanse is dotted with bright blue pools of water.
An aerial view of the Greenland Ice Sheet is dotted with blue meltwater “lakes.” Source: Bernt Rostad/Flickr

In 1995, the direction of the planet’s polar drift abruptly shifted from southward to eastward. Today, scientists can connect polar drift to glacier loss using gravitational data from NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, which launched in 2002. However, since the satellites had not yet been launched in the 1990s, researchers had to piece together the reasons for the sudden directional shift without these detailed gravitational records.

Besides the greenhouse gasses emissions that cause glaciers to melt, other human activity is responsible for changes in Earth’s hydrosphere. The team also found that groundwater pumping was, and continues to be, a factor in polar drift. Groundwater pumping for drinking water, irrigation, and manufacturing has been common practice since the 1960s. The United States alone uses 82.3 billion gallons of groundwater each day. The water that is removed from below ground ends up in the atmosphere as it evaporates from irrigated crops or in the ocean as runoff from irrigation systems into rivers, redistributing mass around the world and altering the planet’s rotation.

Large white and blue pipes with spigots plunge into dusty brown ground.A groundwater pumping station in California’s Central Valley. Source: Chris Austin/Flickr

As the Earth’s glaciers recede at unprecedented rates, the planet’s mass is being constantly redistributed. The team’s findings suggest that we can expect to see the hydrosphere continuing to cause the Earth’s axis to shift in coming years.

Though imperceptible to humans without the use of specialized instruments, the tremendous mass of the Earth has been shifting more than ever recorded. Since 2005, the rate of polar drift has increased by about four centimeters per year. “The shift is nothing that a regular person might notice in their day-to-day life,” said Steinberger. “One would really have to wait for millions of years in order to notice something.” It is, however, a stark reminder of the magnitude of humans’ effects on the planet.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

The article says the shift is so slight that we dont feel the effects.
I get the axel shifts per weight distribution. There are so many factors to consider regarding the demise of mankind.
The plastic islands. The solar bursts or flares. The poles shifting. The population. The food supply. Seems like theres too little too late. I did some research and earths capacity is approx. 10 billion and that is sustaining us with no meat. we are quickly approaching 9 billion. We are dependant on electricity and is pretty obvious anything can cause that to go down at any time and brings us to a complete stop.
For every death there are 2 births. We are completely lopsided the balance of our precious eco system is failing fast.
Theres so much more going on and these articles act like we have millions of years left and we don’t.
Forget finding another planet because again with all the satillites. Out there in space and all the junk floating around. Good luck getting thru all that stuff with a rocket. Take a look at google world with all the stuff in space
What we need is immediate world change if we could reverse the future of mankind. Who are we kidding here?
These are scary days.

Robert Deen
Robert Deen
3 years ago

The Earth’s axis has been changing for about 4,500,000,000 yrs, it’s not a problem.

Ryan H Anderson
Ryan H Anderson
Reply to  Robert Deen
2 years ago

And based on your stated time, you don’t feel we are on borrowed time Mr. Robert Deen?

Phil Gman
Phil Gman
2 years ago

A laughable analysis by China – a country that has never applied a doctrine to reduce Climate Change – Fact – They Break Every Agreement Purposefully – China simply uses climate change to reduce geopolitical rival output, thus increasing its strangle hold on the world economy, All While hanging the carrot of research grant money in front of all to eager research institutes to further manipulate and control the news out of all entities – touting the next announcement as critical on one hand -inciting- more regulation, all while laughingly breaking the very same rules on the other hand with ruthless disregard.

They are simply developing A weak adversary by planting seeds on inner devision – Man kind in contempt for mankind –

Climate Change is entirely unstoppable, the speed of change is merely an extrapolation of consequential acts, few resulting from the density of population, or application of carbon based energy development – it’s simply when and how – not if – The earth is in a constant state of change – at all times – as little as 500 years ago Europe went thru drastic temperature changes, entirely independent of the acts of mankind

The world has always been in a precarious state of balance where minor changes in climate has had dramatic effect, even within the last 100 years

So rather than wasting the effort trying to stop an unstoppable series of events, know these changes are going to occur and take action –

Anything else is simply hyperbola –

Permafrost is melting, ice sheets are breaking off, glaciers are receding

Personally I am more fearful of the impact to mankind even a mini ice age event would have rather than a warming event –
nuclear winter included

Sea levels are rising take action on averting that absolute certainty now,
Potable water is one shortage today, but the change in air-able land with a reliable water source is entirely more important, we as a species are facing a forceable world famine due to reduced output – another absolute certainty

it only took the loss of one crop planting in Ukraine over a period of the last 2 months to assure a world food shortage for some, and starvation for countless others, yet real action today again can avert a complete catastrophe

Reply to  Phil Gman
1 year ago

Yeah it kind of works into the adams event, laschamp cycle. There are so many variables and from so long ago. It really takes broad spectrum analysis of all the things that happened in conjunction. However,polar shift is left out of the mainstream and it requires a deeper discussion of preparation. As it is clearly changing.

Reply to  Chance
1 year ago

It literally requires going to school again and getting deeper physics and open discussion about any of it. Sadly the open discussion part is closed by ‘know’ nothings.

Reply to  Phil Gman
11 months ago

Lol I love when people take an actual intelligent documentary, reword the whole thing as if they’re a professional from the 1500’s, then truly believe their IQ is greater than a hamsters. The Earth is patient but someday soon she will destroy our greedy human race.

1 year ago

Isn’t this what happened millions of years ago?
The planet went through ice ages,
and hot climates,
When most life was lost.

How can you stop the sun shinning?
Just because its shinning over the North Pole,
It can’t be protected and everybody knows over time ice will melt.

Isn’t there some things like day and night coming and going,
that can’t be prevented?

Some people are coming out with their ideas?
But lots of different people have such different ideas.

So who is right?
Who do we believe?

I heard the moon is moving away from the earth as is the sun?

Is it not the earth moving away from them both?

Does all the mining, drilling and tunnelling etc, that’s being done and has been done, over a long time, not have some effect on the earths core?.
So cause issues?

We see more and more sink holes appearing.
Which is scary because they can happen anywhere, anytime without warning.

People also just seem to think they can go anywhere on the planet and do anything they want without thought or without care for the planet,
and as stated, also leave their junk in space.

Also again stated so much air pollution by so many countries.
Again as stated the planet is getting so over crowded and could be causing its own down fall?
So many reasons could be a cause or none could be?
So nothing can change things?
It might just be evolution and the end of some life but so the start of other life?
As we came to be?

1 year ago

Even if the effects are just very slight it can still move high pressures and low pressures/jet streams just enough to drive the weather different directions. Not to mention corresponding fluctuations of the spin of the core of the earth being reflected in fluctuations in the gravitation field which can affect jet stream and low pressures.

The gravitational field is NOT uniformed and that can affect air masses.

It goes along with what this article is about shifting of the weight of the earth in small degrees.

Wayne V Gullage
Wayne V Gullage
1 year ago

Has anyone else observed a noticeable difference in the suns transit across the sky in past couple of years? Conventional science says shifts in earths rotational axis are miniscule over millenia, My observations from my home where I have resided for 30 years say otherwise. Is it an optical illusion or does it warrant a serious scientific investigation?

Ron Jensen
Ron Jensen
Reply to  Wayne V Gullage
1 year ago

I agree with the above. Out in the open on my farm I knew where the sun used to set in the summer time. Now it sets about 30 degrees to the north of the old position. No one is going to tell me the the earth’s axis has not shifted.

Debra Yockel
Debra Yockel
10 months ago

I have a idea that our planet is tilting more..I present you with heat waves. Yes, global warming has alot to do with the heating, bit the axis shift and orbit of our planet around our sun maybe wobbling.
Which it is likely. You combine all the factors and the increased heating of our planet. Ok, with that being said, we should look to Australia..where many inhabitants lived in either caves or underground homes. Many minors lived in dugouts…temp maintained a constant cooler temp.

Rachel Wiggins
Rachel Wiggins
9 months ago

I have been deeply intrigued by this subject ever since I read the book “Pole Shift” by John White and “Worlds in Collision” by Immanuel Velikovsky and some studies by Charles Hapgood back in the 1990’s. I do think the glacier’s melting have something to do with it as the article describes it becoming off set. Another good example is your washer when the clothes are to much on one side and the wash tub gets off balance and it starts to wobble and an alarm will sound. I think the alignment of planets and our sun and moon play a big part in this shift. The movie 2012 explains it well. Is it possible that they may be right after all.

8 months ago

Axis shift very small? Then explain me how are people now waking up to the sun Brighting their rooms from the north? For those don’t know the sun has been appearing from the North in Dallas Forth Worth.

the sun is supposed to be directly over the Tropic of Cancer on the Summer Solstice June 21st. That is its farthest north position of the sun directly overhead. The Tropic of Cancer is near central Mexico. The sun has NEVER been any farther north until now.

We should never see the sun rising and setting to the north of the Texas north border… but it is. You do realize that extended sun light can also be indication of a big axis shift? The changes of big shifts can be seen in seasons and in some parts of the globe.
There was a gif showing a abrupt change of the axis because of the satellite weather map changing, now I can’t find it they deleted it.

Last edited 8 months ago by Zen
christina sosseh
christina sosseh
Reply to  Zen
7 months ago

The Times of India reported The 2004 Asian tsunami had clipped the Earth’s day by 6.8 microseconds and shifted its axis by about 3 inches. The Chilean quake of 2010 too shortened the day by 1.26 microseconds and changed the axis by 3 inches. The shifting of islands was observed in the 2004 tsunami too.

2 months ago

Has anyone discussed the theory of, axis shift causing changing patterns, and
more extreme weather conditions? As apposed to Mankind or cows/farming causing “global warming “. This planet has gone through many violent and extreme changes throughout it’s life. It will continue to change long after we’re gone. We are not the cause. We’re like a rash on a dogs back. Irritating but not deadly.