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Climate change has shifted the Earth's axis, new study suggests

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4/26/2021 Doyle Rice, USA TODAY

Climate change is likely the cause of a recent shift in the Earth's axis of rotation, a new study suggests.

Melting glaciers around the world – a result of rising atmospheric temperatures from the burning of fossil fuels – redistributed enough water to cause the location of the North and South Poles to move eastward since the mid-1990s.

The locations of the poles aren't fixed and unchanging. The way that water moves around the planet's surface is one factor that causes the two poles to drift, the study said. 

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Each year, as the globe warms, hundreds of billions of tons of ice melt into the Earth's oceans.

“The faster ice melting under global warming was the most likely cause of the directional change of the polar drift in the 1990s,” study co-author Shanshan Deng of the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

More Earth science: Scientists say Earth is spinning faster than it has in decades

Since 1980, each pole has moved roughly 13 feet.

In addition to melting glaciers, the pumping of groundwater has contributed to the shift in Earth's axis, the study said.

In the past, only natural factors such as ocean currents and the convection of hot rock deep in the planet contributed to the pole drift, the Guardian said.

Climate scientist Vincent Humphrey of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, who was not involved in the new research, said the Earth spins around its axis like a top. If the weight of a top shifts, the spinning top would lean and wobble as its rotational axis changes. The same thing happens to the Earth as weight is shifted from one area to the other.

Humphrey told the Guardian that this "tells you how strong this mass change is – it's so big that it can change the axis of the Earth." 

But the movement of the Earth’s axis is not large enough to affect daily life, he said: It could change the length of a day, but only by milliseconds.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Climate change has shifted the Earth's axis, new study suggests

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