Story at a glance

  • Since 2002, researchers have been able to study the causes of polar drift thanks to satellite data.
  • Researchers from the American Geophysical Union analyzed measurements of ice loss and estimates of groundwater use in the '90s along with studies on the pole’s movements.
  • They found that in 1995, the direction of the polar drift shifted from southward to eastward, and the average speed of drift from 1995 to 2020 increased about 17 times from the average speed recorded from 1981 to 1995.

New research suggests glacial melting due to global warming has caused shifts in the Earth’s axis of rotation since the 1990s. 

The locations of the North and South poles are not fixed as factors such as ocean currents, molten rock inside the Earth and other factors contribute to the shift of the poles. How water is distributed on the surface of Earth is a factor that drives the shift.


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Since 2002, researchers have been able to study the causes of polar drift thanks to data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites and have linked glacial melting and groundwater pumping to movements of the poles since then. 

But the new study published in Geophysical Research Letters aimed to explain changes in the poles that occurred during the '90s, before the satellite data existed. 

Researchers from the American Geophysical Union analyzed measurements of ice loss and estimates of groundwater use in the '90s along with studies on the pole’s movements. 

They found that in 1995, the direction of the polar drift shifted from southward to eastward, and the average drift speed from 1995-2020 increased roughly 17 times from the average speed recorded from 1981-1995.

Researchers said most of the pole movement was prompted by ice melting off land and flowing into the oceans.

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

The study comes as global ice loss has increased rapidly over the past two decades, soaring from approximately 760 billion tons per year in the '90s to more than 1.2 trillion tons annually in the 2010s. 


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Published on Apr 23, 2021