Climate Change Impact on India and World – International Reports, Key Observations, etc.

Groundwater extraction shifted the Earth’s axis: What a new study says


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Earth's Axis and Rotation

Mains level: Adverse effects of human-induced changes on our planet, Include these as examples


Central Idea

  • In a recent study, researchers have revealed that human activities, particularly the extraction of groundwater, have had a discernible impact on Earth’s axis and contributed to the rise in global sea levels. This phenomenon, known as polar motion, occurs as the mass distribution within and on the planet changes. While the shift in the axis may not have immediate real-life consequences, it underscores the significant influence of human actions on our planet’s delicate balance.

*Relevance of the topic:

*Important geological phenomenon and Contribution of human activities to climate change and its impact

*Also, recent new research suggests that Earth’s inner core may now be rotating slower than its surface, potentially indicating a change in its rotational dynamics

*Quick facts for prelims on geological phenomenon

The phenomenon of Earth’s rotation

  • Rotation Axis: The Earth rotates around an imaginary line called the rotation axis, which runs through the North Pole, the center of the Earth, and the South Pole. This axis remains fixed in space, and the Earth completes one full rotation around it in approximately 24 hours.
  • Rotation Direction: The Earth rotates from west to east, which is why we perceive the sun and other celestial objects to rise in the east and set in the west.
  • Speed of Rotation: The Earth rotates at a relatively constant speed. The equator experiences the fastest rotational speed, which is approximately 1,670 kilometers per hour (1,040 miles per hour). The rotational speed gradually decreases towards the poles.
  • Effects of Rotation:
  1. Day and Night: As the Earth rotates, different parts of the planet are exposed to sunlight, creating the cycle of day and night.
  2. Coriolis Effect: The rotation of the Earth influences the movement of air and ocean currents, giving rise to the Coriolis effect. This effect causes moving objects (such as winds and ocean currents) to deflect to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere.
  3. Shape of the Earth: Earth’s rotation causes it to bulge slightly at the equator and flatten at the poles, resulting in an oblate spheroid shape.
  4. Centrifugal Force: The rotation generates a centrifugal force that slightly counteracts the force of gravity, leading to a slightly lower effective gravity at the equator compared to the poles.
  • Polar Motion: Earth’s axis and the location of the poles are not fixed and can undergo slight movements. This phenomenon, known as polar motion, occurs due to various factors, including mass redistribution within the Earth, changes in water distribution, and atmospheric pressure variations.

The new findings of the study on the impact of groundwater extraction on Earth’s axis

  • Groundwater Extraction and Axis Shift: The study revealed that groundwater extraction plays a significant role in the shift of Earth’s rotational axis. The redistribution of groundwater resulting from activities like irrigation and meeting freshwater demands was found to be the largest contributor to the drift of the rotational pole.
  • Impact of Midlatitude Groundwater Extraction: The research showed that groundwater extraction from regions located at the Earth’s midlatitudes, specifically North America and northwestern India, had a more pronounced effect on polar motion compared to extraction taking place at the poles or equator. This finding highlights the sensitivity of the rotational pole to mass changes in midlatitude areas.
  • Contribution to Sea Level Rise: The study confirmed that groundwater extraction is a major contributor to the rise in global sea levels. The water extracted from the ground for various purposes eventually finds its way into the oceans. The researchers’ calculations aligned with previous studies, which estimated that groundwater extraction raised global sea levels by 6.24mm between 1993 and 2010

Impact of Climate Change on Polar Motion

  • Changes in Water Mass Distribution: Climate change is causing significant changes in the distribution of water masses on Earth. The melting of glaciers, ice sheets, and polar ice caps contributes to the redistribution of water from land to the oceans. This alteration in water mass distribution affects the planet’s rotational dynamics, including polar motion.
  • Melting of Greenland’s Ice: Greenland’s ice sheet is particularly susceptible to climate change. As it melts, vast amounts of water are discharged into the surrounding oceans. This influx of water alters the distribution of mass on Earth, leading to shifts in the rotational axis.
  • Accelerated Rotational Axis Shift: Recent studies suggest that climate change has accelerated the shift of Earth’s rotational axis since the 1990s. The increased melting of glaciers and ice sheets, combined with other climate-driven changes in water distribution, has intensified the movement of the rotational axis compared to historical patterns.
  • Influence on Polar Motion Magnitude: Climate-driven changes in water mass distribution have been found to have a significant impact on the magnitude of polar motion. The redistribution of water, particularly from the melting of ice, affects the planet’s overall mass distribution, causing shifts in the rotational pole.

What is the Significance of the Study?

  • Understanding Human Influence: The study highlights the significant influence of human activities, specifically groundwater extraction, on Earth’s rotational dynamics and polar motion. It emphasizes the need to recognize and account for human-induced changes in the delicate balance of the planet.
  • Environmental Consequences: By identifying groundwater extraction as a major contributor to global sea level rise, the study emphasizes the environmental consequences of excessive groundwater usage. It highlights the importance of sustainable groundwater management to mitigate the adverse effects on sea levels and coastal regions.
  • Climate Change Interactions: The findings establish a connection between climate change and Earth’s rotational dynamics. The study adds to the body of knowledge on how climate-driven changes in water distribution, including melting glaciers and ice sheets, can influence polar motion. Understanding these interactions contributes to a comprehensive understanding of climate change impacts.
  • Policy and Management Implications: The study provides valuable insights for policymakers, water resource managers, and environmental planners. It underscores the need to incorporate the impact of groundwater extraction on Earth’s axis and sea levels into decision-making processes. It highlights the urgency of implementing sustainable practices to manage groundwater resources effectively and mitigate adverse environmental effects.
  • Scientific Advancements: The study contributes to the field of geodesy, which focuses on the measurement and understanding of Earth’s shape, gravity, and rotation. It enhances our understanding of Earth’s rotational dynamics and the complex interactions between various factors influencing polar motion.


  • The study’s results emphasize the need to recognize the far-reaching consequences of human activities on the Earth’s delicate equilibrium. Groundwater extraction, driven by agricultural and freshwater needs, has been found to impact the planet’s rotational axis, leading to polar motion and contributing to global sea level rise. Understanding these interactions is crucial for effective environmental management and sustainable practices to mitigate the adverse effects of human-induced changes on our planet

Also read:

Earth’s inner core rotating slower than surface: Study


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