If the Earth Stood Still, This is What the World Map Would Look Like

One supercontinent, ringing the equator

What would happen if the earth stood still? If the whole planet became a no-spin zone? Worst case scenario: Keanu Reeves destroys the world (1). Slightly less worse case: the oceans migrate to submerge much of the inhabited world. This global catastrophe would lead to the formation of a single supercontinent straddling the equator.


Far-fetched as such a cataclysm might be, as a thought experiment it allows us to examine the gravitational dynamics of our globe, precariously spinning on its axis like a basketball on the fingertip of a Harlem Globetrotter.

Take, for example, the evident truth that land and ocean meet at sea level. A truth so evident that for once (and only once) metres, miles, yards and kilometres all agree: elevation zero. It would seem equally evident that sea level is the same everywhere. But it isn’t.

For the earth isn’t perfectly round. Spinning distorts its shape into what is called an oblate spheroid – a bit flatter at the poles, slightly bulging at the equator. On the grander scale, this discrepancy seems laughably negligible: it amounts to a mere 0.3% difference in length between polar and equatorial axes. But in terms of man-as-measure-of-all-things, it’s a whopper. Or to be more precise, a half marathon: 21 km (13 mi.)

Now imagine the earth stopping cold in its tracks. No more centrifugal force. No more bulging. Over time, the earth’s shape would approximate a perfect ball. But most of the immediate readjusting would be done by the most fluid element on our planet’s surface: the water, which by some measurements currently bulges as much as 8 km (5 mi.) at the equator. The consequences would be far more dramatic than any current climate change scenario. The oceans would not nibble at our shores. They would rise thousands of metres and swallow continents whole.

This would happen as the equatorial aquatic surplus would rush towards both poles, submerging much of the land mass towards either extremity, eventually creating an equatorial megacontinent that would ring the earth and thus separate both polar oceans.

What a strange new world this would be. As the earth would stop rotating (but presumably still circle the sun), one night-and-day cycle would last an entire year. The new continent ringing the globe (2) would include a large part of current Mid-Atlantic, Indian and Mid-Pacific seabeds, perhaps re-emerging legendary continents like Mu, Atlantis and other lands lost beneath the waves.

Most of North America would drown, a rump US still jutting out into the Northern Ocean. Of Europe, only Andalusia would remain (plus a few scattered Alpine, Pyrenean and Balkanic islets). Russia: gone. Central Asia: gone. North Africa would actually gain some land, but Afghanistan and Tibet would no longer be landlocked.

The southern hemisphere would fare a lot better: a lot less land to be lost there in the first place. Australia has to see Tasmania go, but gets a land bridge to Papua and the wider world – and that’s been a while, as attested by the development in isolation of its unique marsupial fauna. Speaking of which. Provided any animals (and humans) survive the Great Stoppage (3), it would be interesting to see what living on a single land mass does to the diversity of the natural world.

Because the Northern and Southern Ocean are now separate from each other, and since both basins have different capacities, there will be two sea levels, with the Southern Ocean’s zero elevation 1.4 km (0.9 mi.) lower than the Northern one.

As mentioned earlier, this scenario is far-fetched, but the theory behind it is not without its relevance to the real world – which is slowing down, slightly but measurably so. About 400 million years ago, the earth rotated 40 times more around its axis for every revolution around the sun – meaning that an earth year had over 400 days, and that oceans bulged even more at the equator than today.

Many thanks to John O'Brien, Thomas McColgan, Paul Drye and Eirik B. Stavestrand for sending in this map. The science (and the computation) behind it is explained in great detail by Witold Fraczek, who devised it at the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) here on the ESRI website.

Strange Maps #475

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

(1) As Klaatu, in the 2008 remake of the 1951 original sci-fi horror movie of the same name as the title of this post.

(2) What would it be called? Pangaea – again? Ringland? Equatoria?

(3) This sounds like a British remake of (1)

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

The dos and don’ts of helping a drug-addicted person recover

How you talk to people with drug addiction might save their life.

Videos
  • Addiction is a learning disorder; it's not a sign that someone is a bad person.
  • Tough love doesn't help drug-addicted people. Research shows that the best way to get people help is through compassion, empathy and support. Approach them as an equal human being deserving of respect.
  • As a first step to recovery, Maia Szalavitz recommends the family or friends of people with addiction get them a complete psychiatric evaluation by somebody who is not affiliated with any treatment organization. Unfortunately, warns Szalavitz, some people will try to make a profit off of an addicted person without informing them of their full options.
Keep reading Show less

The most culturally chauvinist people in Europe? Greeks, new research suggests

Meanwhile, Spaniards are the least likely to say their culture is superior to others.

Image: Pew Research Center
Strange Maps
  • Survey by Pew Research Center shows great variation in chauvinism across Europe.
  • Eight most chauvinist countries are in the east, and include Russia.
  • British much more likely than French (and slightly more likely than Germans) to say their culture is "superior" to others.
Keep reading Show less

In a first for humankind, China successfully sprouts a seed on the Moon

China's Chang'e 4 biosphere experiment marks a first for humankind.

Image source: CNSA
Surprising Science
  • China's Chang'e 4 lunar lander touched down on the far side of the moon on January 3.
  • In addition to a lunar rover, the lander carried a biosphere experiment that contains five sets of plants and some insects.
  • The experiment is designed to test how astronauts might someday grow plants in space to sustain long-term settlements.
Keep reading Show less