Humans Are Making Earth Wobble, Says NASA

Step lightly! You may be making the planet wobble.

Earth as pictured from space.
Skylines / Shutterstock

Step lightly! You may be making the planet wobble.

Human activity is partly responsible for increasing a wobble in Earth’s rotation, according to research published Monday.

Rising sea levels and melting Arctic ice are partly responsible for exacerbating Earth’s wobble, NASA found after conducting a major study on the planet’s rotation.

“In general, the redistribution of mass on and within Earth — like changes to land, ice sheets, oceans and mantle flow — affects the planet’s rotation,” NASA said in a statement.

As large bodies of mass — such as ice sheets — move, it can cause the planet to wobble as it rotates. This wobble may have shifted Earth’s spin axis by more than 10 meters since 1899. Scientists say that this movement isn’t anything unusual, though it’s long been linked to natural phenomena like continental drift.

NASA’s latest study confirmed that around a third of the Earth’s wobble is indeed caused by the movement of land masses. Another third was attributed to activity in the mantle, an ever-moving layer of the planet that rests just below the crust. In particular, the study found that the wobble is exacerbated by the process of “mantle convection,” where molten rock rises and falls in the mantle. NASA compared this process to the way boiling soup moves in a pot on a stove.

“As the pot, or mantle, heats, the pieces of the soup begin to rise and fall, essentially forming a vertical circulation pattern — just like the rocks moving through Earth’s mantle,” NASA explained.

However, this subterranean movement is just part of the story.

According to NASA, ice loss in Greenland also played a key role in increasing Earth’s wobble during the 20th century.

“In fact, a total of about 7,500 gigatons – the weight of more than 20 million Empire State Buildings – of Greenland’s ice melted into the ocean during this time period,” NASA stated.

“This makes Greenland one of the top contributors of mass being transferred to the oceans, causing sea level to rise and, consequently, a drift in Earth’s spin axis.”

Greenland is of particular significance due to its position on the planet — said the study’s co-author, Eric Ivins.

“There is a geometrical effect that if you have a mass that is 45 degrees from the North Pole — which Greenland is… it will have a bigger impact on shifting Earth’s spin axis than a mass that is right near the Pole,” he said.

As Greenland’s ice melts, the land below is rising — in a phenomenon called “glacial rebound.” This phenomenon is responsible for at least a third of Earth’s wobble, NASA concluded.

The melting of Greenland’s ice is a key concern for climate scientists, according to glacier researcher — and Manchester Metropolitan University lecturer — Kathryn Adamson.

“Greenland is an important cog in the global climate system,” she explained in a written piece for The Conversation.

Adamson stated that if Greenland’s thawing continues at current rates, it could release the equivalent of as much as 1,400 billion tons of carbon dioxide by the end of the century.

“All that extra methane and carbon of course has the potential to enhance global warming even further,” she warned.