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A Mystery Of Earth's Wobble Solved: It's The Ocean

July 18, 2000
American Geophysical Union
For over a century, scientists have sought to understand the cause of one of Earth's wobbling motions as it rotates. Now, thanks to recently developed models, the mystery is solved: the main cause of this wobble is changing pressure on the ocean bottom.

WASHINGTON - The century old mystery of Earth's "Chandler wobble" has been solved by a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The Chandler wobble, named for its 1891 discoverer, Seth Carlo Chandler, Jr., an American businessman turned astronomer, is one of several wobbling motions exhibited by the Earth as it rotates on its axis, much as a top wobbles as it spins.

Scientists have been particularly intrigued by the Chandler wobble, since its cause has remained a mystery even though it has been under observation for over a century. Its period is only around 433 days, or just 1.2 years, meaning that it takes that amount of time to complete one wobble. The amplitude of the wobble amounts to about 20 feet at the North Pole. It has been calculated that the Chandler wobble would be damped down, or reduced to zero, in just 68 years, unless some force were constantly acting to reinvigorate it.

But what is that force, or excitation mechanism? Over the years, various hypotheses have been put forward, such as atmospheric phenomena, continental water storage (changes in snow cover, river runoff, lake levels, or reservoir capacities), interaction at the boundary of Earth's core and its surrounding mantle, and earthquakes.

Writing in the August 1 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, Richard S. Gross of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory reports that the principal cause of the Chandler wobble is fluctuating pressure on the bottom of the ocean, caused by temperature and salinity changes and wind-driven changes in the circulation of the oceans. He determined this by applying numerical models of the oceans, which have only recently become available through the work of other researchers, to data on the Chandler wobble obtained during the years 1985-1995. Gross calculated that two-thirds of the Chandler wobble is caused by ocean-bottom pressure changes and the remaining one-third by fluctuations in atmospheric pressure. He says that the effect of atmospheric winds and ocean currents on the wobble was minor.

Gross credits the wide distribution of the data that underlay his calculations to the creation in 1988 of the International Earth Rotation Service, which is based in Paris, France. Through its various bureaus, he writes, IERS enables the kind of interdisciplinary research that led to his solution of the Chandler wobble mystery. Gross's research was supported by NASA's Office of Earth Science.

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American Geophysical Union. "A Mystery Of Earth's Wobble Solved: It's The Ocean." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 July 2000. <>.
American Geophysical Union. (2000, July 18). A Mystery Of Earth's Wobble Solved: It's The Ocean. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 25, 2017 from
American Geophysical Union. "A Mystery Of Earth's Wobble Solved: It's The Ocean." ScienceDaily. (accessed April 25, 2017).