Groundwater pumping changes Earth’s tilt

Humans have pumped and moved so much groundwater that the Earth tilted nearly 80 centimeters (31.5 inches) east between 1993 and 2010 alone, according to a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Spinning globe.
Spinning globe. - Image © roxxyphotos - Adobe Stock.

The Earth’s rotational pole is the point around which the planet rotates. It moves during a process called polar motion, which is when the position of the Earth’s rotational pole varies relative to the crust. The distribution of water on the planet affects how mass is distributed.

“Earth’s rotational pole actually changes a lot,” said Ki-Weon Seo, a geophysicist at Seoul National University who led the study. “Our study shows that among climate-related causes, the redistribution of groundwater actually has the largest impact on the drift of the rotational pole.”

Water’s ability to change the Earth’s rotation was discovered in 2016, and until now, the specific contribution of groundwater to these rotational changes was unexplored. In the new study, researchers modeled the observed changes in the drift of Earth’s rotational pole and the movement of water — first, with only ice sheets and glaciers considered, and then adding in different scenarios of groundwater redistribution.

The model only matched the observed polar drift once the researchers included 2150 gigatons of groundwater redistribution. Without it, the model was off by 78.5 centimeters (31 inches), or 4.3 centimeters (1.7 inches) of drift per year.

“I’m very glad to find the unexplained cause of the rotation pole drift,” Seo said. “On the other hand, as a resident of Earth and a father, I’m concerned and surprised to see that pumping groundwater is another source of sea-level rise.”

“This is a nice contribution and an important documentation for sure,” said Surendra Adhikari, a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was not involved in this study. Adhikari published the 2016 paper on water redistribution impacting rotational drift. “They’ve quantified the role of groundwater pumping on polar motion, and it’s pretty significant.”

The location of the groundwater matters for how much it could change polar drift; redistributing water from the midlatitudes has a larger impact on the rotational pole. During the study period, the most water was redistributed in western North America and northwestern India, both at midlatitudes.

Countries’ attempts to slow groundwater depletion rates, especially in those sensitive regions, could theoretically alter the change in drift, but only if such conservation approaches are sustained for decades, Seo said.

The rotational pole normally changes by several meters within about a year, so changes due to groundwater pumping don’t run the risk of shifting seasons. But on geologic time scales, polar drift can have an impact on climate, Adhikari said.


Drift of the Earth’s pole confirms groundwater depletion as a significant contributor to global sea level rise 1993–2010” is published in Geophysical Research Letters, a fully open-access journal. 



Ki-Weon Seo (corresponding author), Center for Educational Research and Department of Earth Science Education, Seoul National University, Seoul, Republic of Korea

Jae-Seung Kim, Kookhyoun Youm, Department of Earth Science Education, Seoul National University, Seoul, Republic of Korea

Dongryeol Ryu, Department of Infrastructure Engineering, The University of Melbourne, Parkville, Australia

Jooyoung Eom, Department of Earth Science Education, Kyungpook National University, Daegu, Republic of Korea

Taewhan Jeon, Center for Educational Research, Seoul National University, Seoul, Republic of Korea

Jianli Chen, Department of Land Surveying and Geo-informatics, and Research Institute for Land and Space, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong

Clark Wilson, Department of Geological Sciences, and Center for Space Research, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA