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Japan earthquake may have shortened length of days and shifted Earth’s axis

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March 15, 2011

The Japan earthquake may have sped up the Earth's rotation and shifted its axis

The Japan earthquake may have sped up the Earth's rotation and shifted its axis

Using a complex model to perform a theoretical calculation based on a U.S. Geological Survey, Richard Gross of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has determined that by changing the distribution of the Earth's mass, the earthquake that devastated Japan last Friday should have sped up the Earth's rotation, resulting in a day that is about 1.8 microseconds (1.8 millionths of a second) shorter.

The calculations, which will likely change as the data on the Japan quake is further refined, have also been used to examine the effects of other recent quakes. Gross estimated that last year's 8.8 earthquake in Chile shortened the length of a day by about 1.26 microseconds, while similar calculations revealed the 9.1 magnitude Sumatran quake of 2004 shortened the day by 6.8 microseconds. Just how much an earthquake affects the Earth's rotation depends on the magnitude of the quake, its locations and details of how the fault slipped.

Gross's calculations also indicate the Japan quake should have shifted the position of the Earth's figure axis by about 17 cm (6.69 in), towards 133 degrees east longitude. Not to be confused with the Earth's north-south axis, the figure axis is that about which the Earth's mass is balanced. While the slight shift will cause the Earth to wobble a bit differently as it rotates, it won't cause a shift of Earth's axis in space, which can only be affected by external forces such as the gravitational pull of the sun, moon or planets.

Gross points out that the changes to the Earth's rotation and shift of its axis aren't anything to be worried about. "Earth's rotation changes all the time as a result of not only earthquakes, but also the much larger effects of changes in atmospheric winds and oceanic currents," he said. "Over the course of a year, the length of the day increases and decreases by about a millisecond, or about 550 times larger than the change caused by the Japanese earthquake. The position of Earth's figure axis also changes all the time, by about one meter (3.3 feet) over the course of a year, or about six times more than the change that should have been caused by the Japan quake."

Although scientists are able to measure the larger effects of the atmosphere and ocean on the Earth's rotation, the changes due to earthquakes have been too small to measure as the computed change in the length of a day caused by earthquakes is much smaller than the accuracy with which scientists can currently measure changes in the length of a day.

However, the effects from the 9.0 magnitude Japan quake, which is the fifth largest since 1900, may actually be large enough for scientists to observe. This is because the position of the figure axis can be measured to an accuracy of about five cm (two inches), so the 17 cm shift from the Japan quake may be observable if the scientists can adequately remove the larger effects of the atmosphere and ocean from the equation.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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11 Comments

I have watched the ongoing earthquakes on EarthquakeWatch via iGoogle over a few years & I believe that the recent Japan quake was a rebalancing or settling of the tectonic plate after the Christchurch quake which was a re-settling of the Ecuador/Peruvian quake in August 2010. The Solomon Islands has had several quakes from 6 & up to just above 7 over the last year alone, Sumatra had a 7.7 quake in October & these have also been a settling of the plate. I believe that there will be another re-settling on the American Western side. Whether that is down near Peru or up near the San Andreas fault waits to be seen. I have a feeling it will be in the latter of the two. The amount of movement on the various edges of the plate, at every major edge of the plate, other than the San Francisco/Los Angeles area means there has been a huge amount of pressure build-up in that area & the likelihood that the resultant earthquake is a high number like an 8 or more is fairly likely.

The land doesn't just fall in one area without affecting the other sides, especially when it is up to 30 miles deep. It doesn't necessarily react immediately because 30 miles of land is a lot of resistance & the buckling takes time to occur. Eventually the stresses created will give way & we are talking about a 25 to 30 mile deep raft that is pushing up against another raft of similar depth. Understand that they all edge onto the Pacific plate except Peru where the Pacific plate runs directly into the Nazca plate, the fractures that have occurred in Japan, following Christchurch, encompassing the ongoing Solomon Islands' quakes which occurred either side of the Indonesian quakes & following the major Ecuador/Peruvian quake. Realise that the Solomon Islands are kind of in the middle of the plate, well close & so it teeters around that space & so their quakes may rarely become massive, rather they get the shift in several directions consequently getting more of them but the places on the longer edges, like Peru, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand & North America are destined to be hit hard.

I don't want to be wrong but I also would rather not be right. The problem here is that the signs are that the USA will be hit by the build-up of all these large earthquakes & being the last to release the stresses, may mean that the largest is yet to come because the stresses are being pushed back now from every other direction.

Rex Alfie Lee
16th March, 2011 @ 08:00 am PDT

I've read a lot of articles that have described monumental wastes of time, but this one takes the cake. First, this guy says the the Japan earthquake affected the earths rotation by 1.8 billionth of a second and then goes on to say that his calculations will change as more data is received. Then, as if that isn't bad enough, he says, "Earth's rotation changes all the time as a result of not only earthquakes, but also the much larger effects of changes in atmospheric winds and oceanic currents," he said. "Over the course of a year, the length of the day increases and decreases by about a millisecond, or about 550 times larger than the change caused by the Japanese earthquake. The position of Earth's figure axis also changes all the time, by about one meter (3.3 feet) over the course of a year, or about six times more than the change that should have been caused by the Japan quake."

So, with that magnanimus statement. he admits that his efforts are a complete waste of time, and no doubt someone's money. I am totally amazed at the number of these so called scientific studies that have little or no effect on our daily lives, and yet someone is paying big money to these people to do it. Don't you wonder where the money comes from ?

ThJudg
16th March, 2011 @ 09:00 am PDT

I don't 'feel' older...

Ted Doty
16th March, 2011 @ 09:13 am PDT

First Daylight Savings Time and now this?

Muraculous
16th March, 2011 @ 09:24 am PDT

On the bright side, consider this a short term hedge against entropy.

Myron J. Poltroonian
16th March, 2011 @ 03:51 pm PDT

Let's see.... 1.8 milliseconds x 40 years (give or take) = .25 seconds less left in my projected lifespan. Can I deduct that from my income tax?

erock5000
16th March, 2011 @ 10:38 pm PDT

I feel it is indeed premature to record any scientific explanation at this juncture when Japan is craving for humanatarian support. Let us not forget that our understanding of nature - whether it atmospheric OR subterranean - falls short of explaining events convincingly.

Shyam
16th March, 2011 @ 11:11 pm PDT

Some scientist believe that there will soon be a large earthquake in California as a result of the recent series of earthquakes in Japan and other locations. The earthquake in Japan seems to be related to recent sun flare activity. We are probably in for natural catastrophes through 2012. This Solar Cycle of sun flares has begun. It has been predicted by NASA, NOAA and ESA to be up to 50% stronger than its 'record breaking' previous Cycle. The Sun will reach its 'apex' (maximum) in late 2011 into 2012. The recent series of earthquakes from Christchurch to Japan means that there has been a significant amount of movement on the various edges of the Pacific tectonic plate at every major edge of the plate, other than the San Francisco/Los Angeles area. This means there has been a huge amount of pressure build-up in that area & the likelihood that the a resultant earthquake in California is significantly increased.

Facebook User
17th March, 2011 @ 04:51 am PDT

This is correct, get ready Bay Area & LA, estimated by our computer models to occur in 3 to 4 weeks

Facebook User
17th March, 2011 @ 06:38 am PDT

If this keeps going then we can eliminate Leap year right? lol

Janice Lea Cerda-Vanlandingham
17th March, 2011 @ 03:33 pm PDT

Mat 24:22 And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened.

Mar 13:20 And except that the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh should be saved: but for the elect's sake, whom he hath chosen, he hath shortened the days.

Facebook User
17th March, 2011 @ 09:06 pm PDT
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