Chandler wobble

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The Chandler wobble is a small deviation in the Earth's axis of rotation relative to the solid earth,[1] which was discovered by American astronomer Seth Carlo Chandler in 1891. It amounts to change of about 9 metres (30 ft) in the point at which the axis intersects the Earth's surface and has a period of 433 days.[2][3] This wobble, which is a nutation, combines with another wobble with a period of one year, so that the total polar motion varies with a period of about 7 years.

The Chandler wobble is an example of the kind of motion that can occur for a spinning object that is not a sphere; this is called a free nutation. Somewhat confusingly, the direction of the Earth's spin axis relative to the stars also varies with different periods, and these motions—caused by the tidal forces of the Moon and Sun—are also called nutations, except for the slowest, which are precessions of the equinoxes.


The existence of Earth's free nutation was predicted by Isaac Newton in Corollaries 20 to 22 of Proposition 66, Book 1 of the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and by Leonhard Euler in 1765 as part of his studies of the dynamics of rotating bodies. Based on the known ellipticity of the Earth, Euler predicted that it would have a period of 305 days. Several astronomers searched for motions with this period, but none was found. Chandler's contribution was to look for motions at any possible period; once the Chandler wobble was observed, the difference between its period and the one predicted by Euler was explained by Simon Newcomb as being caused by the non-rigidity of the Earth. The full explanation for the period also involves the fluid nature of the Earth's core and oceans—the wobble, in fact, produces a very small ocean tide with an amplitude of approximately 6 mm, called a "pole tide", which is the only tide not caused by an extraterrestrial body. Despite the small amplitude, the gravitational effect of the pole tide is easily detected by the superconducting gravimeter.[4]

Attempts at measurement

The International Latitude Observatories were established in 1899 to measure the wobble; incidentally, the wobble is also called the variation of latitude. These provided data on the Chandler and annual wobble for most of the 20th century, though they were eventually superseded by other methods of measurement. Monitoring of the polar motion is now done by the International Earth Rotation Service.

The wobble's amplitude has varied since its discovery, reaching its largest size in 1910 and fluctuating noticeably from one decade to another.

In 2009, Malkin & Miller's analysis of International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) Pole coordinates time series data from January 1946 to January 2009 showed three phase reversals of the wobble, in 1850, 1920, and 2005.[2]

While it has to be maintained by changes in the mass distribution or angular momentum of the Earth's outer core, atmosphere, oceans, or crust (from earthquakes), for a long time the actual source was unclear, since no available motions seemed to be coherent with what was driving the wobble.


One promising theory for the source of the wobble was proposed in 2001 by Richard Gross at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed by the California Institute of Technology. He used angular momentum models of the atmosphere and the oceans in computer simulations to show that from 1985 to 1996, the Chandler wobble was excited by a combination of atmospheric and oceanic processes, with the dominant excitation mechanism being ocean‐bottom pressure fluctuations. Gross found that two-thirds of the "wobble" was caused by fluctuating pressure on the seabed, which, in turn, is caused by changes in the circulation of the oceans caused by variations in temperature, salinity, and wind. The remaining third is due to atmospheric fluctuations.[5]

See also

  • Carter, B. and M. S. Carter, 2003, "Latitude, How American Astronomers Solved the Mystery of Variation," Naval Institute Press, Annapolis.
  • Gross, Richard S., 2000, "The Excitation of the Chandler Wobble", Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 27 (15), pp. 2329–2332.
  • Lambeck, Kurt, 1980, The Earth's Variable Rotation: Geophysical Causes and Consequences (Cambridge Monographs on Mechanics), Cambridge University Press, London.
  • Munk, W. H. and MacDonald, G. J. F., 1960, The Rotation of the Earth, Cambridge University Press, London.
  • Moritz, H. and I.I. Mueller, 1987, Earth Rotation: Theory and Observation, Continuum International Publishing Group, London.


  1. e.g. Mueller, I.I., Spherical and Practical Astronomy as Applied to Geodesy, 1969, Frederick Ungar Publishing, NY, pp. 80.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Zinovy Malkin and Natalia Miller (2009). "Chandler wobble: two more large phase jumps revealed" (PDF). arXiv. arXiv. Retrieved 16 July 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Earth's Chandler Wobble Changed Dramatically in 2005". MIT Technology Review. MIT Technology Review. 2009. Retrieved 25 July 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. See, e.g., Fig. 2.3. Virtanen, H. (2006). Studies of Earth Dynamics with the Superconducting Gravimeter (PDF). Academic Dissertation at the University of Helsinki. Retrieved September 21, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Gross, Richard S. (2000). "The Excitation of the Chandler Wobble". Geophysical Research Letters. 27 (15): 2329–2332. doi:10.1029/2000gl011450. Retrieved January 17, 2011. Some scientists predict the last wobble to have happened nearly 4000 to 7500 years ago during a time when there were dramatic changes in the pattern of monsoons across northern Africa. The researchers claim that it has transformed the Great Saharan Desert into somewhat greener territory. Further, they expect the wobble to happen once in nearly 20000 years, which implies that the next can be expected after a period of 16000 years; these estimates are short compared to the life of earth.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links