If the Arctic Ocean was dammed, drained, and refilled, what would happen?

Imagine that there was a massive, and I mean enormous, series of dams constructed along the Bering Strait, cutting the Arctic Ocean off from the Pacific Ocean, and also along all waterways that presently connect the Arctic to the Atlantic Ocean (the Fram and Davis Straits are the two, I think), and somehow or another (hypothetically of course), there were massive solar reflectors constructed above the North pole that concentrated sunlight to accelerate the evaporation of the Arctic Ocean so that it would evaporate away (with the dams being constructed along the Bering, Fram, and Davis straits preventing the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, respectively, from replenishing/refilling the Arctic Basin), over some long period of time…

Whereupon our hypothetical distant descendants would blow up the dam at the Fram Strait (really, any one, or all of them…), destroying it in its entirety, thus allowing the waters of one or both of the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans to burst through the channel thus created, the channel being created as wide/deep as the actual channels existing right now (in other words, the inflow of oceanic water into the Arctic Basin will be guaranteed to be massive in magnitude). Assume the flood would occur over a period of 1 month, from beginning to end, meaning a refilling of the Arctic Basin from its empty state to its present state, with it being filled by the Ocean as it exists today.

What do you believe will be the consequences of such a “flood,” in addition to and other than, of course, a large amount of ocean water being redistributed from the world oceans at large into a region where there was “previously” no water (meaning the Arctic Basin - there being no water in it because of the damming and evaporation by solar reflectors).

Specifically, do you believe this mass redistribution toward the poles would lead to instability of the Earth’s rotational axis as a whole, or rather would result in “just” moving a large amount of water? In other words, is this movement of ocean water, significant enough to lead to global disturbances in the Earth’s dynamical properties? If such a “flood” were to commence in a year and again complete it’s course in a month’s time, (with the conditions needed to make the flood having been established in the past, rather than as I have described previously as a hypothetical [of course, the supposition that the flood were to happen in a year is also another hypothetical…=p], and you were given due warning to relocate you, your family & friends, to anywhere in the United States as it presently is defined, would you be worried about your and loved ones’ survival, or would you, rather, be unconcerned, as it’s “just a flood happening in the Arctic, not in America,” (or some other reason).

Thanks for your replies. As for myself, I’d still be praying, and panicking, for fear of the Arctic Ocean’s flooding triggering an even larger disturbance of the Earth’s rotational equilibrium.

This article and the linked image indicates that this hypothetical scenario may have occurred in the distant past…but almost certainly on a gradual “trickle down” scale.http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.newscientist.com/data/images/ns/cms/dn12103/dn12103-2_600.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.newscientist.com/articleimages/dn12103/1-how-the-arctic-ocean-was-born.html&h=592&w=600&sz=35&tbnid=9ChxeqbNZZRHCM:&tbnh=91&tbnw=92&zoom=1&usg=__tfYYt12GSgS_L5094f07bGqu4UU=&docid=bXe3mkM8BO2cPM&hl=en&sa=X&ei=g2qPULfBCobMigKdx4DQCA&ved=0CDAQ9QEwBQ&dur=391

Edit (past 5 min deadline), grammar mistake:

The Earth’s oceans have insignificant mass in comparison to the planet’s mass. Think of the Earth as a damp cue ball.

How do you keep rain from falling back into the Arctic basin?


No, it doesn’t. “water began flowing through it in both directions; previously, it had only flown out of an Arctic lake”. At no point does the article mention a dry basin. When water began flowing into the lake it was as an ocean current bringing in salt water in the deep while fresher water flowed out on the surface.

Actually, not bad idea. The Arctic Ocean receives fresh water from some major Northward-flowing rivers (the Lena, Ob, Yenisey in Siberia, the Mackenzie from Canada). Currently, the lower salinity of the water leads to thicker ice and earlier freeze-ups. If these northward flowing rivers were diverted south (and used to irrigate the deserts of Central Asia), the Arctic Region would warm up.

If the Atlantic and Pacific oceans abruptly shifted north, they would bring a lot of warm equatorial water. I speculate this could cause severe weather problems, such as bringing tropical hurricanes to New England.

The volume of the Arctic Ocean is small compared to rest of the world ocean. Its average depth is about 1/3 to 1/4 that of the Atlantic and Pacific, and it is much smaller in area. Let’s see… total volume of all oceans is ~1.3 billion km^3, Arctic Ocean volume is about 18.8 million km^3. So you would only be redistributing a little over 1% of the ocean, and as Little Nemo pointed out the mass of the ocean is insignificant compared to the mass of the Earth. The effects on the Earth’s rotation would be minimal. They’d probably be measurable, but on the order of changing the length of a day by a fraction of a millisecond, or of changing the orientation of the poles by a fraction of an arcsecond.

Just curious, why would you think we would have to evacuate to some safe place? All of this talk about “pole shifts” and the like seem to ignore the fact that nothing would happen to the continents as they currently exist if the Earth’s axis of rotation changed. Well, it would change the seasons and climate, not not much else (I say this because some claim that continents would go underwater and stuff like that; they also seem to confuse a rotational pole shift with a geomagnetic reversal, while while real, wouldn’t have any serious effects other than on magnetic compasses and systems dependent on them).

In any case, I could possibly see some earthquakes as a result of the sudden change in stress on faults, but mainly faults that would eventually produce earthquakes anyway. Also, if the Arctic Ocean was dammed and drained, it would result in a much colder climate in the region because there wouldn’t be any warm water flowing in, plus the water itself moderates temperatures, even when covered in ice (the coldest temperatures in the winter in the Northern Hemisphere occur over land); subsequently refilling it in a very short period of time would produce dramatic and extreme climate changes.

Also, any effect on the Earth’s rotation or rotational axis would probably just reverse the slight changes that occurred when you emptied it in the first place. Here is a relevant article on the consequences of ice melt in Antarctica, which would cause changes in the Earth’s gravitational field (the ice currently acts to increase gravity around it, one consequence of its melt would be a disproportionate rise in sea levels on the other end of the globe, which would also happen if the Arctic was drained) and rotation.

I concur with Little Nemo. In regard to specifically whether there would be effects on the Earth’s plate tectonics, orbital path or other large-scale physical properties, I believe such a scenario would have essentially zero impact.

That is not to say that there wouldn’t be extreme climactic, tidal or other impacts.

Contrary to suggestions upthread that moving large amounts of oven water will have no effect on the Earth’s rotation, I’m certain that a strong signal would be detectable in the Earth rotation data from such an event, given that even ordinary ocean circulations cause measurable variations in the Earth’s rotation. But they’re very small, and only of interest to people trying to point telescopes and track satellites – you can get the data tables from the IERS if desired.

Again, these effects are measureable, but small, and the Earth isn’t going to flip on its side, or suddenly have a 23-hour day.

It’s worth noting that of all places, the arctic ocean is probably the one where such a displacement would have the least effect, since:

  • Being near the rotational pole, mass there has the minimal angular momentum and moving it around will have the minimum inertial effect on the planet’s acceleration
  • Being roughly centred on the pole, there won’t be a large movement of mass to one side of the Earth to the other, so it’s not like the Earth’s centre of mass will be shifted off its centre of rotation, leading to an imbalance.
  • if it’s filling kind of evenly from sort of opposite sides (Bering, Baffin, and Barents inlets – see the layout in polar projection, the net radial motion of mass with respect to the Earth’s rotational axis will be minimized, reducing further any inertial effect, since it’ll be more or less balanced in azimuth.

In short, not only is the Earth’s inertia large enough compared to that of the ocean that moving lots of water around won’t dramatically change it’s overall motion, but this scenario more or less minimizes the effect that moving large amounts of water around can have.

The effect would be measureable, but probably not noticeable. As phreesh points out, though, there would be serious climactic effects, changes in sea level, etc.

Hmm. Interesting. Would you say that this overall scenario would change the Earth’s rotational properties more or less than does a magnitude 9.0-9.5 earthquake, such as the one that struck Indonesia in 2004 or Japan recently, both of which affected them very slightly, but measurably?

Are you implying that there is nothing that can significantly/nontrivially/catastrophically perturb the Earth’s rotational dynamics that originates on and is limited to the Earth’s surface alone (as opposed to its solid interior, or interaction with other celestial bodies, etc)?

I think your assessment is correct, now that I’ve read your and other posts, both regarding the effect on orbital and other large scale physical properties on one hand, and the climate on the other.

I would like to ask two follow-up questions:

  1. Do you expect the climatic changes that you referred to as possibly “extreme” to last only roughly as long as the duration of the event (1 month long, so from 1 month to maybe around a season/year), thereupon restabilizing to the prior overall climate, or to the contrary, expect them to be long-lasting (if so, how long), and secondly, global or local in nature (i.e. limited to the Arctic Region, or hemispheric/entire Earth)?

  2. What do you mean about “tidal” changes, and why do you think there could be significant tidal changes, and of what nature?

If my scenario was changed from the Arctic Ocean undergoing this described event to the Pacific Ocean, which is vastly larger and distributed pretty much as far from either pole as possible, as opposed to the Arctic, which as you said is clearly distributed around the North Pole, would you consider the situation to have changed from measurable, but hardly noticeable/significant to somewhat more significant, or rather definitely noticeable and of a whole different nature?

Probably not; having a large, close moon like Luna gravitationally bound to Earth makes it very hard to alter the Earth’s present tilt. As I understand it, you’d have to tilt the whole Earth/Luna system rather than just the Earth, which is far harder. Without the Moon you might be able to tilt the Earth by moving mass around on the surface; it apparently happened to Mars when it was young (a large buildup of volcanic rock apparently caused the crust to slide over the then-molten interior until the new mass concentration reached the equator). But you’d want to add mass near the pole rather than take it away.

Never heard of the Fram Strait before this. It’s between Greenland and Svalbard. But just damming the Bering, Davis and Fram Straits would not be enough. You’d also have to connect Svalbard with Norway by dam and that would be larger than any of the others. Also have to dam the Fury and Hecla Strait which separates Baffin Island from the North American mainland, but that would be the smaller than any of the others. If you also wanted to drain Hundson Bay, you’d dam Hudson Sound instead of F&H Strait.

Draining the Arctic would cause the rotation of the Earth to slow somewhat. Not a lot, at a WAG, I’d say on the order of a second a day. I’m going to guess that the North Pole would also move because of the draining, since, while the Arctic is roughly circular, it isn’t centered on the North Pole. The North Pole moves a little bit anyway (around a couple meters a year in a random walk) but this would be considerably more movement than that. It wouldn’t be catastrophic, though, since the draining would be very gradual. And probably not that far; it should still be in the Arctic Basin somewhere.

Refilling it would more or less undo the above changes. And I wouldn’t expect the refilling, even though more sudden than the draining, to be all that catastrophic, either. But I’m going by my intuition here, so could be wrong.

You know, this would be a good question to submit to xkcd what-if. It’s just the sort of off-the-wall stuff he seems to like to answer.

How can you stop the sun from shining?
What makes the world go round?
How can you mend this broken man?
How can a loser ever win?

How many roads must a man walk down?