February 28, 2024

The engineering feat that tilted the Earth’s rotation axis

Modified June 25, 2023 | 11:48

If you have ever played with a high, you probably noticed how the slightest touch can tilt its axis, changing the trajectory of its rotation. Interestingly, our blue planet behaves similarly, only on a much larger scale.

From 1993 to 2010, the land tilted about 80 cm to the east due to the extraction of groundwater for human consumption, agriculture and industry. This is one of the impressive implications of the Anthropocene, an epoch marked by human activities affecting the planet’s geological shifts.

The scientific research contained in Geophysical Research Letters reveals remarkable change. Over the course of 17 years, humans extracted an estimated 2,150 gigatonnes of water from the Earth, raising sea level by more than 6 millimeters and pushing the Earth’s axis of rotation due to the redistribution of the planet’s mass.

This surprising discovery shows that the distribution of Earth’s mass – even though water makes up only 0.05% – can greatly affect the balance of our planet.

The effect of groundwater extraction on Earth’s rotation

It is important to note that this change in the axis of rotation of the Earth is not only due to the melting of glaciers, a phenomenon traditionally recognized as the main cause of the redistribution of the Earth’s mass. Ki and Yoon Seodirector of the Seoul National University study, confirms that groundwater redistribution is the largest climatic influence on axis deviation.

in your innovation StadyThe researchers took this new perspective into account. They built models that take into account the impact of melting ice caps and glaciers and different scenarios of groundwater redistribution.

The results were great. The model closely matches actual observed changes in the tilt of Earth’s rotation axis and the shift in the geographic North Pole. The biggest surprise was that the redistribution of water from mid-latitudes, mainly to western North America and northwest India, had a greater effect than even the melting of glacial ice.

The great engineering feat that tilted the Earth's rotation axis in just 17 years

Groundwater draining, earth circulation

Like a spinning top, Earth’s rotation is affected by mass shifting. When water is extracted from the Earth’s interior for various human uses, it ends up flowing into the sea, causing changes in mass that cause the Earth’s rotation to oscillate. However, this displacement occurs slowly, affected by changes in the atmosphere, oceans, and solid parts of the Earth.

Despite this interesting discovery, we can breathe a sigh of relief. According to scientist Surendra Adhikari, groundwater extraction is unlikely to disturb the seasons. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore it. In geological terms, the shift of 80 cm could affect our climate, underlining how seemingly insignificant human activities can have far-reaching planet-wide consequences.

So the next time you drink a glass of water, think about the journey water has taken—from the depths of the earth, through human hands, to the oceans, and finally, in the slight tilt of our planet spinning like a top. It serves as a reminder of how intertwined our lives are with the natural world.