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Science & Tech

The North Pole is shifting east

  • Apr 14, 2016
  • 266 words
  • 2 minutes
Earth does not always spin on an axis running through its poles. Instead, it wobbles irregularly over time, drifting toward North America throughout most of the 20th Century (green arrow). That direction has changed drastically due to changes in water mass on Earth. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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If you’re prone to getting lost, a recently discovered change won’t make finding your way any easier. Scientists at NASA have announced that the North Pole is moving east — a result of a massive balancing act in response to a weight shift caused by melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica.

In the same announcement, NASA noted that in 2000 the North Pole, which was heading toward Canada, took “an abrupt turn toward the east.” While shifts happen, in recent years the speed of this movement has increased significantly, moving twice as fast as ever recorded in the 115 years that pole movement has been tracked. This means that now the North Pole is moving an average of 17 centimetres per year.

NASA scientists believe that a major cause of this speed is large underground water movement in Eurasia, around the Indian subcontinent and the Caspian Sea. These areas, which sit at around 45 degrees latitude, carry more weight in the global balance, and therefore play a key role in global movement.

In recent history, Eurasia has faced aquifer depletion and droughts, so pole movement has moved more quickly.

NASA researcher, Erik Ivins, who was a main contributor to the study, noted in a NASA press release that historical records collaborated well with recent satellite observations, proving this theory.

“Historical records of polar motion are both globally comprehensive in their sensitivity and extraordinarily accurate,” said Ivins. “Our study shows that this legacy data set can be used to leverage vital information about changes in continental water storage and ice sheets over time.”

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