Are the earth’s poles going to shift soon?

Dear Cecil:

While reading an article recently on the coming ice age, I thought of a related apocalyptic myth that happens to be a favorite of mine, namely that the earth is way overdue for its periodic rotation of the poles. This will result in the complete destruction of civilization and probably means we won't get to watch "Wheel of Fortune" anymore either. What's the story — is it true? Has it started?

Cecil replies:

Well … sort of. But let’s take this from the top. “Poleshift,” as it’s called, has been the subject of several books, most of them by people who think Close Encounters was a documentary. A typical one is 5/5/2000 Ice: The Ultimate Disaster, by Richard Noone. Noone believes that on May 5, 2000, massive ice buildup in the antarctic will cause the earth to shift 90 degrees on its axis so that what are now the polar regions will end up at the equator. This will be accompanied by slippage of the crustal plates, earthquakes, flooding, volcanoes, and probably one hell of a rush hour. A reviewer has described the book as “without a shred of scientific foundation.”

But is it? A few legitimate scientists believe that the earth, or at least its crust, has shifted on its axis in the past. Geologist Jean Andrews of Columbia University has found evidence to suggest that 180 million years ago the poles were displaced about 22 degrees from their present alignment, with the North Pole located on the northern coast of what is now the Soviet Union. The poles have spiraled erratically toward their present locations in the aeons since.

Why this slippage has occurred (if in fact it has occurred) is not clear, but Andrews points to a theory advanced years ago by maverick scientist Thomas Gold, who proposed that heavy regions on the earth’s crust would tend to drift toward the equator due to centrifugal force. This is not that far from Noone’s idea, although Noone is talking about ice, the weight of which is trivial compared to the continental masses Gold had in mind. In any case, the concept has many practical applications. Take vacation travel. Why fly off to the tropics? Just cram 50 tons of weights in your attic (to maximize your torque, of course), grab your Coppertone, and wait for the tropics to come to you.

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