Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chandler Wobble: A Ticking Time Bomb?

The Earth has a problem: It's a very slowly rotating top on perfect ball bearings.

Do you remember that toy gyroscope you received for Christmas years ago -- it would slow down, and start wobbling.

The Earth does the same thing -- it wobbles, in several ways!

For years, it hardly wobbled at all. Why?

Because of snow.

Because of global warming, it's snowing heavier in Antarctica than it has in thousands of years.

So, while ice shelf calving lightens one side of our slowly spinning top in space, more and more snowfall is increasing the snow tonnage on the other side -- the much larger side -- of Antarctica.

By trillions of tons.

Despite global warming and snow pack increase on one side of Antarctica, a few years ago, the wobble, called Chandler Wobble, was nearly gone. Nearly no wobble at all, for a short time.

Probably, snow tonnage accidentally perfectly balanced-out the other factors impacting wobble.

But things are changing. The two great ice shelves are getting smaller, as the oceans warm. And as the atmosphere warms, evaporation of the oceans increases, and snowfall at the poles increases. Antarctica is getting more and more imbalanced, relative to the Earth's core beneath it.

Imagine one day, you come home from work and turn on the news and the anchorwoman reports that scientists note that the Earth's wobble is the largest ever measured.

Ten days later, another report mentions a meeting at the White House to talk about the impact of global warming on Earth wobble.

Five days later, troops start being called home from Iraq and Afghanistan ahead of schedule, in great numbers, to the delight of many families, but to the puzzlement of many.

Two days after that, a spokeman for the Franklin Insitute notes that there has been talk of a "surprising" amount of wobble in the Earth's rotation. It is 1,000 feet off! The spokesman notes that he is having difficulty getting answers from government agencies.

Then a new phenomenon starts coming up in the news with surprising frequency -- small earthquakes -- many of them -- as well as some tsunamis.

And then, the volcanoes start. Lots of them.

Then people start trickling into hospitals at an increasing rate -- very, very slowly at first, but then the numbers become ever larger. The diagnosis is "motion sickness"!!!

Doctors are astonished, and mystified.

But then someone notices that the Sun is not quite rising and setting in the same place every day.

Wobble is suddenly 250 miles wide!

Very shortly thereafter, all of these steadily increasing manifestations of a problem begin filling the news in an ever increasing chorus. The weather starts changing. People watch the stars. New stars are seen on one horizon at night, other ones disappear on the opposite horizon. An amateur astronomer manages to get a time-lapse photo of Polaris, the North Star. It's a big circle on the film -- not stationery.

Panic begins to grip society. Winds start increasing everywhere. Earthquakes start occurring everywhere. Volcanoes start erupting in ridiculous places. Billions start suffering from a subtle motion sickness.

Then, the impossible suddenly occurs. The Sun sets in the south! After only a few hours of day! The Sun is darkening, the moon turns red, from volcanic dust in the sky!

And suddenly, the oceans jump up on the Western edges of all continents. Near what was the Equator, completely absurd tidal waves, traveling northeast at 700 miles per hour, 20 miles high, rush onto land. The water pressure at the base is ridiculously huge -- thousands of tons per square inch. Everything is ground into mud, as the Earth begins to wobble wildly out of control.

That's kind of what it would be like if Chandler wobble got out of hand.

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