I've seen the topic of Earth Crust Displacement (a.k.a. Pole Shift Hypothesis) brought up various times in science-fiction stories and at least one movie (2012). The idea is that somehow the crust of the Earth can become unstuck and shift pretty severely and move landmasses to completely different parts of the globe.

The supporting points usually cited as evidence are that Einstein believed in it and that mammoths frozen in arctic ice have been found with the remains of tropical vegetation in their stomachs, indicating that what's now the arctic used to be at a much lower latitude and moved up north very quickly. This second assertion, if it's actually true, would be very interesting.

The concept seems to fail the common sense test, though. When you consider that the recent devastating earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and Japan were caused by the earth's crust shifting by a few feet each, extrapolation leads to the conclusion that a shift of a few thousand miles would cause quakes of apocalyptic magnitude that would most likely have torn apart both the bodies of the mammoths in question and the ground they were standing on.

Is there any reality to this concept, or is it just an idea that some scientists thought up back before they knew as much about the way things really work as they do now?

  • Why not let Woody Harrelson explain it with a nice animation? (from the movie 2012) – Oliver_C May 10 '11 at 18:43
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    ever heard about plate techtonics – picakhu May 10 '11 at 19:11
  • @picakhu: Yes, and I've heard that continents drift over the space of millions of years. The mammoth example, if true, couldn't have taken more than a few days. That's something very different. – Mason Wheeler May 10 '11 at 23:00
  • I misread your question. It now appears to me that you are suggesting that that perhaps earth had a different climate in the past, or perhaps a rotation of earth may have brought about what you are citing. – picakhu May 10 '11 at 23:04
  • You are confusing the poles reversing with landmasses drifting. The first is possible, and can happen quickly geologically potentially, the second takes millions of years. – Ron Maimon Oct 25 '12 at 1:26

No, there are no recorded events of tectonic shifts of that magnitude.

An extensive search of reliable educational institutions and peer reviewed scientific literature did not turn up any favor for this manufactured mechanism (not a one!). This is generally only supported as a fringe creationist canard, 2012 hysterics, or plain old Hollywood fantasy stories that bears no relation to reality.

I did come across a few interesting sites on the history of the theory. For instance, a History Professor was one that seemed to really kick this off in popular media based off poorly drawn medieval maps... Charles Hapgood was his name. Overall it seems an idea that is so patently ridiculous that any scientific rebuttal is not considered worth the paper (or electrons) wasted in that effort. The entire body of work of geology stands on its own merit without even needing to address this.

As for the tropical vegetation in the mammoth stomachs, that is simply not true.

Analysis of the mammoth’s stomach contents revealed the animal’s diet to include a variety of grasses, such as foxtail, crested wheatgrass and barley grass.

(None of those species are "tropical" in any way.)

Also, be careful in your question, you are conflating the crust expansion with magnetic shifts. Two entirely separate things. This slideshow from Southern Methodist University pretty much discounts all these Earth Crust Displacement (a.k.a. Pole Shift Hypothesis) theories as plain old loony...

Additionally, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center addresses the Einstein claim, which had nothing to do with the Pole Shift crackpot hypothesis, but rather why there is a magnetic dynamo that is still functioning after 4 billion years.

For that matter, why is it that instead of quietly fading away, as magnetic fields do when left to their own devices, Earth's magnetic field is still going strong after billions of years? Einstein is said to have considered it one of the most important unsolved problems in physics. With a year of computing on Pittsburgh's CRAY C90, 2,000 hours of processing, Glatzmaier and collaborator Paul Roberts of UCLA took a big step toward some answers. Their numerical model of the electromagnetic, fluid dynamical processes of Earth's interior reproduced key features of the magnetic field over more than 40,000 years of simulated time. To top it off, the computer-generated field reversed itself.

It is nonsense. The claim is made in The Mysterious Origins of Man, broadcast by NBC in 1996, which aimed at showing science had suppressed evidence of a wide variety of strange statements, including that humans had existed for millions of years as part of a peculiar form of creationist theory.

It has been attacked both from an orthodox scientific standpoint but also from a more mainstream creationist standpoint. On the mammoth claim, there is no evidence that the the vegetation in their stomachs was tropical.

Over far longer timescales there have been more dramatic changes, including plate tectonics and at times higher polar temperatures. But you do not seem interested in these.

This is one where you need to be very careful about your terminology. Magnetic poles can shift very quickly (indeed the changing strength and orientation of the Earth's magnetic field is extraordinarily fast by geological standards having decayed by 10% in about 100 years). So I wouldn't call the real question "pole shift hypothesis" to avoid confusion.

If the question is does the crust move, that is different. It clearly moves: plate tectonics is the current conventional wisdom in geology and this has continents wandering all over the place but over hundreds of millions of years (which is centimetres per year as Wikipedia or any geology text would tell you).

If the question is can it move really fast (say even kilometres per year) then few would agree. But there has been at least one serious discussion of the idea by a geologist written in the early days of the modern consensus on plate tectonics. The book is Prehistory and Earth Models. The author argued for rapid tectonic shifts triggered by the weight of peak ice during the last ice age causing a sudden breakup of the continental crust.

I doubt anyone else ever agreed with his argument (outside creationist circles) but I thought it worth recording as it was at least a serious attempt to make a case and he did say some interesting things about exactly how the continents should fit together before they broke up.

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