The following is not a futuristic scenario. It is not science fiction. It is a demonstration of the capabilities of GIS to model the results of an extremely unlikely, yet intellectually fascinating query: What would happen if the earth stopped spinning?
What is GIS?
A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface. GIS can show many different kinds of data on one map. This enables people to more easily see, analyze, and understand patterns and relationships.
Now lets continue what if it happened. What if the Earth stopped rotating?
The good news is that if the Earth’s rotation stopped, we wouldn’t fall off. With water pushed to the poles, we could walk on land around the entire equator, but it would be a very inhospitable place, as Dr Karl Kruszelnicki explains.
We know that the rotation of the Earth is gradually slowing down. But what would happen if God, the devil or aliens suddenly and completely stopped our planet from rotating on its axis of spin? Luckily, thanks to improved knowledge about our planet, geographers can now give us the answers.
Needless to say, the effects of such an incredible event occurring so abruptly would cause nothing short of annihilation. According to NASA, a sudden stop of Earth’s spinning motion would displace everything that’s not firmly fixed to the bedrock. The reason for this is that, despite the Earth’s spin being stopped, the atmosphere would continue to be in motion at its original speed, i.e., 1100 miles per hour (1770 km per hour). Therefore, everything that’s not firmly attached to the bedrock will be swept off the ground; huge rocks, topsoil, buildings, vehicles, and even your beloved television, will be lifted up and swept away by the atmosphere.
Half of the planet would almost continuously face the heat of the Sun, while half would face the cold of space.
Life could continue in a narrow twilight zone between the hot and cold halves. But this twilight zone would slowly creep around the planet over the period of a year, as the Earth did its annual orbit around the Sun.
Effects on DAY and NIGHT
To start with, the most basic feature of our lives – the 24-hour ‘thing’ that we divide existence into, would be altered. It’s common knowledge that Earth takes 24 hours (approximately) to complete one spin on its axis, which in turn causes every creature on Earth to experience day and night.
However, if Earth stopped spinning gradually, what it accomplishes in a single day might eventually take a year to complete; countries on the side facing the sun would experience daylight for 6 months, while those living on the side facing away from the sun would experience a six-month night. This is precisely what life is like at the North and South poles today at different points of the year.
Effects on Landscape
If the Earth were to stop spinning on its axis, gradually the oceans would migrate towards the poles from the equator. At first, only small regions of terra firma around the equator would rise out of the retreating waters.
Eventually, there would be a huge mega-continent wrapped continuously around the Earth at the equator. You could travel around the Earth on the equator and stay entirely on dry land—ignoring the freezing cold on the night side, and the searing heat on the day side.
The water that left the equatorial regions would have to go somewhere, and that ‘somewhere’ would be the poles. There would be two totally disconnected polar oceans on each side of the equatorial mega-continent.
In the north, Canada would be entirely underwater. And roughly following the line of the border of current-day USA and Canada, all of Greenland, as well as the northern plains of Siberia, Asia and Europe would be underwater. But Spain would mostly stay above water.
On the other side of the equator, the new southern ocean would start roughly on a line running through current-day Canberra. Africa would be joined to Madagascar, while Australia would be joined to New Guinea and Indonesia.
Our spinning Earth is in fact slowing down. Billions of years in the past, the faster-spinning Earth had a bigger bulge around the equator, and billions of years in the future, the slowed-down Earth will have a smaller bulge, and will be closer to a sphere.
In fact, this slowing of the spin is why we have to add an extra second into our clocks every 500 days or so. I’ll talk more about that, next time.
The good thing is, none of this is going to happen anytime soon; in fact, it won’t happen for millions, or even billions, of years. That’s definitely a relief!