I've been hearing a lot lately about how Japan's massive earthquake moved the Earth or changed its axis by 1°-4°.
I personally feel that this is not possible, but I don't have nearly enough knowledge to refute it.
Is this possible? Why or why not?
This is actually pretty interesting. If you consider that figure skaters can change their rotation by adjusting the placement of their body mass (e.g. their arms), it is apparent that a simple geometry change can affect rotation.
After the Feb 2010 earthquake in Chile, Nasa released this press release:
[the Chile] quake should have shortened the length of an Earth day by about 1.26 microseconds...the quake should have moved Earth's figure axis by 2.7 milliarcseconds
So it seems it is possible, but perhaps not in the magnitude that you quote in your question.
Richard Gross, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Japanese Earthquake:
According to a calculation I did [...] the days should have gotten shorter by about 1.8 microseconds. That's 1.8 millionths of a second.
the mass of the Earth is not balance about its rotation axis, and so it wobbles as it rotates, just like an out-of-balance tire on your car vibrates as it rotates. And it's that axis about which the mass is balanced is what shifted during this earthquake. The earthquake rearranges the mass of the Earth, and therefore the figure axis moved by about six-and-a-half inches.