Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Oct. 10 2007 8:28 PM


I have received several emails about a website claiming that the Earth is tilting wildly from its usual 23.5º inclination, and that this is causing global catastrophe that has been covered up by the government.

Of course.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  


The website is called Divulgence.net. It goes on for page after page with breathless warnings of Doom and Coverups. From what I have read, it appears the author is claiming that solar activity has caused the polar ice to melt, tilting the Earth an additional 26 degrees, moving the positions of sunrise, changing weather patterns, and so on.

Image of the new tilt of the Earth from divulgence.net.

Now, you'd think you'd notice this, right? But as the site claims:

Why has no one noticed?

It did not slip all at once. It has been a slow change over the past 20 years, but two of the most significant axial shifts occurred between Dec 4 and 6, 2006.

Despite common misperception, an event like this can happen silently rather than a catastrophic sudden change. A 2000 mile shift would not be felt any more than you can feel the rotation of the earth. The earth rotates nearly 25,000 miles every day. About 1038 miles every hour. You cannot feel a 2000 mile change in the axis any more than you can feel the earth rotate or orbit the sun.

The star layout would only be a miniscule change which the average person would not notice. In the night sky, it would only be inches difference in the stars between the Dakotas and Mexico latitudes.

Sometimes, being a debunker is all too easy. This last claim is completely wrong, and leads to why the entire website is wrong.

The Earth spins on its axis once a day. This is why the stars appear to rise and set. If you were to stand on the North Pole, you would see all the stars in the sky appear to make big circles around you (neither rising nor setting). The point on the sky at the zenith, straight up, is the axis of this rotation. Very near this point is a middling bright star we call Polaris. It's about a degree off the pole, actually, so it makes a small circle in the sky over the course of a day.

Now, if the Earth's axis shifted 26º, this would shift the center of the sky's rotation by the same amount. Polaris would now be 26º (+/-1º) from the north celestial pole, and all the other stars would shift accordingly. This is not a "miniscule change", but an epic one. It would be incredibly obvious to anyone who went outside at night and simply looked up.

There's a lot more stuff on the site that can easily be shown to be wrong. The diagram above, for example, is totally confused. First, the author seems to think that if the Earth tilted over, the Ecliptic would change. This is wrong. The plane of the Ecliptic is the path of the Earth around the Sun as projected on the sky, or, if you prefer, the path of the Sun around the sky over the course of the year (these are the same thing). It is therefore independent of the Earth's tilt! The Earth could flip over 90º, and the ecliptic would stay the same. So the labeling of the "Current Eliptic" (sic) is wrong.

The drawing of the "old" and "new" Ecliptics has made this diagram so muddled it has me completely baffled. It's very difficult to interpret it, especially since it's tilted oddly. So I fixed it! Kindof; my Photoshop skillz are less than mad. Still, here is how things are supposed to be:

The Sun is straight to the left, so the horizontal line is the Ecliptic. The green line marks the spin axis of the Earth, tilted 23º to the pole (the line perpendicular) of the Ecliptic. The purple lines mark the Tropics. These are lines parallel to the Equator of the Earth; on the northern one (the Tropic of Cancer) the Sun is straight overhead at noon on the summer solstice in June. The lower one (Tropic of Capricorn) is where the Sun is straight overhead at noon on the winter solstice in December. The drawing represents the summer solstice.

This is what things would look like if we tilted an additional 26º to give a tilt of 49º. I kept the Ecliptic the same, as it should be. Note how the Tropics have moved; the author of Divulgence got that part right. They would move away from the Equator, since at the solstices the Sun would be much farther north or south if the Earth tilted this much.

But notice what this does: take a look at, say, Spain. Now imagine the Earth spinning. As the Earth spins, Spain would stay in daylight 24 hours a day on the summer solstice! On the winter solstice, Spain would be in darkness for 24 hours a day.

I think someone might have noticed were this to be the case. ¡caramba! ¡cielos!

So again, this clearly shows the claims on this site are totally 100% bogus.

I could go on and on, but the unchanging position of Polaris is really all you need. We're done after that no matter what.

Why would someone make claims like these? Sometimes, these web sites are from ornery cranks, or people trying to stir things up, and sometimes the person behind them is mentally unbalanced (so IOW let's keep the nasty comments to a minimum). The problem is, there are lots of other folks out there who read stuff like this and swallow it whole-- I present Nancy Lieder as Evidence A. Even though it seems like some ideas are so silly they're not worth bothering over, I still wonder. Nancy had quite the cult following for a while.

Anyway, if anyone ever turns to you after an intimate moment and asks, "Did the Earth move for you?", call a friend or relative in Spain and ask them if the Sun is up. Then you'll be able to answer with confidence.

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