Antarctic Ice Melt Would Shift Earth's Axis, Further Changing Sea Level

By Eliza Strickland | February 6, 2009 4:33 pm

ice-sheetThe collapse of an ice sheet in West Antarctica would not only threaten coastal areas of North America and nations in the southern Indian Ocean, but would also cause a shift in the earth’s rotation axis, researchers report in Science.

If the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) collapses and melts, as some scientists feel is likely due to global warming, the earth’s rotation would shift an approximate 500 meters from its current position. Rather than cause a uniform rise in sea level, this would result in a 30 percent greater increase in certain areas—about 21 feet for Washington, D.C., for example, compared with the uniform 16 to 17 feet already predicted. The researchers say the melting would change the balance of the globe in much the same way that tsunamis move huge amounts of water from one area to another [ABC News].

Because the gravitational pull of an ice sheet on the ocean is reduced when it melts, water then moves away from it. The net effect is that the sea level actually falls within 2,000 km of a melting ice sheet, and rises progressively further away from it. If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses, sea level will fall close to the Antarctic and will rise much more than the expected estimate in the northern hemisphere because of this gravitational effect [Science Daily]. In addition the sheer weight of ice is forcing down the land underneath it and having an impact on the Earth’s spin. When the ice is removed up bounces the land and the Earth moves [Nature].

No need to panic about drowning next week, however. It’s a time scale of hundreds of years [Reuters], said Jerry X. Mitrovica, one of the authors of the study. If you really want a preview, digital animation is available to see what potential scenarios of changes in sea level would look like.

Related Content:
80beats: Antarctica Is Definitely Feeling the Heat From Global Warming
80beats: Emperor Penguins May Be Marching to Extinction by 2100

Image: Ben Holt Sr. / NASA

  • bill peinert

    Would it at all be possible that this is exactly what happened millions of years ago to cause the Earths largest ice age?

  • George

    * National Geographic (November 19, 2008)- Dark Matter Proof Found Over Antarctica?:
    High-energy electrons captured over Antarctica could reveal the presence of a nearby but MYSTERIOUS ASTROPHYSICAL OBJECT that’s bombarding Earth with cosmic rays, researchers say…
    * LiveScience (06 June 2008)- Antarctic Ice Causes Glacial ‘Earthquakes’:
    Scientists have discovered their first icequake, if you will — a movement of a huge stream of ice in Antarctica that creates seismic waves, just like an earthquake, and can be felt hundreds of miles away… These ice-driven seismic waves had the force of a magnitude 7 earthquake:

  • Steve W

    Although these data are a long way from the Continent of Desire, they nevertheless open the door for another look at the widely-discussed Polar Shift theory proposed by Dr. Charles Hapgood many years ago. 500 meters isn’t 2000 miles; but as we constantly revise our estimates of global warming impacts, the ecological change at the end of the Pleistocene, and the antiquity of complex human societies, Dr. Hapgood’s concepts may get a new hearing. Alfred Wegener was ultimately proved right, and the KT Event revived catastrophism, so who knows what’s in store for us?

  • Jeff

    Funny thing that everyone fails to mention is that we are and have been in a ice age for thousands of years – the plestesine ice age. We are just in a window of warmth. The history earth shows that the vast majority of time has been spent without ice glaciers. Global warming will happen – we are just speeding up the process a bit with extra CO2. But fossil fuels are finite and the earth can absorb and pull it into limestone. But what might happen is that methane might escape that is buried in the tundra and coastal regions – that will cause a spike in tempurture that may last a decade – and melt the ice… returning earth to its more natural state. Won’t be another ice age small or large beyond that for 40000-100000 years if that. polar bears are doomed – get used to it.

  • Bruce Voigt

    Death toll hits 84 in Australian wildfires

    “Marysville is no more,
    In Kinglake, five of 40 houses were still standing, while forests and farmland have been reduced to ashes.

    An unnamed resident told News that he battled the blaze with a garden hose until his car gas tank exploded, which was followed by a propane tank in his house.
    “It rained fire,” he said. “We hid in our olive grove for an hour and watched our house burn.”

    On Saturday, the fires destroyed 700 homes as soaring temperatures mixed with high winds to create a firestorm that blew through most of the state, where all of the deaths have occurred.

    Witnesses reported seeing trees exploding and ash raining down, as temperatures that hit 47 C created oven-like conditions.
    Police reported finding charred bodies in cars in at least two locations, which indicates that residents were burned alive as they attempted to flee the blazes.

    And in other parts of the world you have heard about people freezing to death. This is bad —t and is “all” to do with erratic Earth tipping. You may feel that this will not happen where you live, don’t hold your breath!

    Many things can be done to prepare for catastrophe. The most important thing for Man Kind is advanced warning.

    Conventional warning is out dated and it’s about bloody well time out dated science took hold of new discoveries.

    It is of GREAT IMPORTANCE to establish a constant monitoring system for Canada’s North Magnetic Pole Movements. — WOBBLING of the EARTH

    Bruce Voigt

  • ciaran

    seen as its the antatic we are talking about , you cant really mention polar bears. its the emperor penguins that need to be worried

  • Matthew

    Blame it on global warming. Rubbish. Everything is down to our sun cycles and its sun spots. This is what causes the magnetic pole to shift and the melting of the ice and what you call global warming. It is happening on Mars as well. Next you will be blaming what is happening on Mars on us as well. Stop make rubbish up and tell everyone the truth, as the truth will finally come out soon any way.

    The magnectic poles are due to change in about 4 years in 2012 not 100 years and yes by that time there will not be any ice, but because of this you can not blame one on the other.

    The amount of melting ice has spend up and will continue to spend up untill 2012.

  • http://google chloe

    hi what are yous doing?

  • http://none Chris Wolff

    The effect of the present temperature rise is already progressive melting of antarctic and greenland ice sheets. Talk of tipping points and tentative suggestions of consequences are puzzling. Surely, we know that the temperature is already too high. The ice sheets will continue to melt (faster than expected we now hear). Isn’t it time to lower the temperature rather than assuming we just have to slow things down? Yes, it’s only an interim measure, but there is already an, for practical purposes, irreversible reduction in the gulf stream.

  • Ronald Kastanek

    Look up the temperature rise on other planets. While thicker air does hold down more heat we do not pollute other planets. See some astounding astronomy finds on the sun heating up and the magnetism of the earth is radically dropping. The magnospheric shield is allowing more solar wind to hit the ionosphere generating electro-magnetic pulse. See film 66 of the declassified nuclear bomb tests in the Ionosphere which explains the tail effect of a upper atmospheric test. Since the sun is thermonuclear, 90 percent of the energy is not sunlight it comes at us in beta, gamma, and x-rays. If the magnosphere cannot hold it back trillions of watts will be generated at the two poles. Then it will pass down along the magnetic lines into the iron core. This will melt at 5800 degrees and drive even more magma to the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific Ridge. The solution move to Ethiopia. A lake forms in the middle of the Saharah when enough magma surfaces under water to cause steam columns that hit the stratosphere. This lake forms after each ice age and turns the desert temperate for 500 years. They have found tree layers which match ice ages. We need to build domes, form concrete and rebar easily supplied in Africa. These can be built by pouring concrete over a pile of sand. Or one can use oasis aerial photographs to locate caverns. See also the rise in harmonic tremors along the pacific subduction fault lines. Email me I will send you a list of URLs were all in this together but only about one in 1000 will have the will to survive do you?
    Ronald Ross Kastanek

  • GloBlob

    Ah, thanks Ron, but I’ll be one of those gone in the first wave, I expect(hope).

    I couldn’t think of anything worse than hanging out with the remnant humans always flogging their self-referential wisdom and the Darwinian will to survive as their highest, most profound thought running non-stop like a damn Billy Joel song through their brains.

  • James O’Donnell

    Just a thought and not sure if the data is out there or anyone has thought of it. What if an ice age was triggered not by global warming but the earths axis itself? If the earth axis changed, then the equator would change and the ice caps would as well. This can possibly explain fossils found in deserts of sea mammels. It can be possible that the change in the earths axis could be driving the melting of Artic ice. Making the root cause (Global warming) to be mis-leading. I do also believe magnetism from the sun could have a big part in this. I thought this was a very interesting subject and just wanted to comment on it.

  • Debra Portch

    From our windows, we can watch the sun march across the horizon as the seasons change. There’s a mountain with smaller peaks, a barn, trees etc–markers along the way. It has been a glorious science lesson living here! We can SEE the earth’s tilt change in tiny degrees over the year. June 21 always brought the sunrise at the farthest north end of the mountain’s little ridges. Dec 21 brought sunrise between a large barn and a power line pole. I got up this morning and the run rose just over a house much farther south than the power line pole. What is going on?

  • My Awesome Name

    Well I just thought I’d point out a descrepency here, Tsunami’s do not actually move anyone water, unlike what is stated in the first paragraph: “The researchers say the melting would change the balance of the globe in much the same way that tsunamis move huge amounts of water from one area to another [ABC News].” This is untrue. Longitudinal waves, such as those caused by earthquakes, only cause matter to move vertically, if it moved horizontally, then any boat or buoy the tsunami passed would have been brought with it for any tidal wave. Just like how a boat moves up and down on waves, and is not carried by it (they are rather moved by currents) no water is moved horizontally with tidal waves.


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