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Humans extract so much groundwater that the axis of the Earth has shifted, according to a study.

New research suggests that humanity’s insatiable demand for groundwater may be altering Earth’s axis of rotation.

When rain is infrequent, farmers can rely on groundwater to irrigate their crops and provide drinking water for their cattle. However, recent studies suggest that groundwater extraction over a period of more than a decade has tipped Earth’s axis of rotation to the east at a pace of around 1.7 inches (4.3 cm) each year.

Researchers wrote about this change in a study that came out on June 15 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. They said that it can be seen on the top of the Earth because it causes the sea level to rise around the world.

Researcher and professor at Seoul National University’s Earth science education department Ki-Weon Seo stated, “Earth’s rotational pole actually changes a lot,” in an official press release. The redistribution of groundwater, according to our research, is the climate-related reason that most strongly affects the movement of the rotational pole.

The wobbling axis of the Earth.

Even if you can’t feel it, Earth is actually spinning on its north-south axis at a speed of around 1,609 kilometers per hour (1,024 miles per hour).

NASA research specialist Surendra Adhikari, quoted in the announcement, explained that the ebb and flow of seasonal variation is tied to the angle of the planet’s rotational axis, and that over geologic time, a wandering axis might alter climate on a worldwide scale. Adhikari has nothing to do with the research.

The interior of Earth consists of a compact, heated core surrounded by layers of rock and magma. The outermost layer of rock, however, is not entirely dry. Aquifers, underground rock reservoirs, are thought to hold more than a thousand times as much water than the world’s rivers and lakes combined.Estimates published in 2010 suggest that people drained more than 2,150 gigatons of groundwater from the interior of the planet between 1993 and 2010, with most of this water being taken from western North America and northwest India. To give you an idea of how much it is, if it were poured into the ocean, it would cause an increase in world sea levels of around 0.24 inches (6 millimeters).

Another group of scientists concluded in 2016 that the mass of glaciers, ice sheets, and the planet’s terrestrial liquid water reserves may have changed due to the drift of Earth’s rotational axis between 2003 and 2015.

Seo told via email that atmospheric pressure is just one example of a mass change that can impact Earth’s rotation axis.

However, the rotating pole wanders and then returns to its original location because of fluctuations in atmospheric pressure, as explained by Seo. Seo and his coworkers were curious about the role that groundwater played in the axis’s slow but steady shift over time. Previous studies did not include a calculation for this.

Exposing the consequences of groundwater extraction

Radio telescope observations of stationary objects in space (quasars) are used to calculate the axial tilt of the Earth. Data collected in 2010 on groundwater withdrawal was used in the current study’s computer models, along with observational data on melting ice sheets, rising sea levels, and estimations of magnetic pole shifts.

Following this, “using the groundwater mass change from the model,” the researchers calculated how much of the axis shift might be attributed to groundwater pumping.

Models show that in less than two decades, groundwater redistribution shifted the Earth’s axis of rotation by more than 31 inches (78.7 cm). Mantle flow, the movement of molten rock in the layer between the crust and the outer core of the Earth, was already recognized to be the most important source of long-term fluctuations in the rotating axis. Seo noted that the new modeling shows that the extraction of groundwater is the second most important reason.

This is a great addition and a crucial record, as Adhikari himself acknowledged. They have demonstrated the quantitative importance of groundwater pumping in polar motion.

Observations of Earth’s rotation can shed light on past theories, Seo said. He explained that the information has been accessible ever since the latter half of the 19th century. Thanks to such data, scientists will be able to look back in time and see how the planet’s systems have changed as the climate has warmed over the past century.

In regions of the world severely impacted by drought due to climate change, groundwater pumping can be a lifeline. However, underground water supplies are limited, and it takes a long time for them to refill after being used.

And the new data show that groundwater mining has global effects beyond just depleting a resource.

We’ve had a wide-ranging impact on Earth’s processes, Seo admitted. “That’s something that people should know.”

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