|The fault in our stars|
Crust displacement is a hypothesis put forward by Charles Hapgood (1904—1982). In short, it asserts that sometimes the Earth spins really fast and the continents rearrange. Hapgood believed that this happened relatively recently and was what caused the continent Mu to disappear. Hapgood's theory stands in stark contrast to common sense, as well as the now-accepted theory of plate tectonics.
It is the progenitor to the somewhat more cataclysmic idea of a "pole shift".
Hapgood was an American historian working towards his PhD on the French Revolution when the Great Depression dried up his funding. After several stints in different military and federal agencies during World War II, he settled down and taught history at Springfield College in Massachusetts until he was fatally hit by a car in 1982. Hapgood wrote a number of books detailing his theory,[note 1] including The Earth's Shifting Crust (1958), Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings (1966), and The Path of the Pole (1970).
The 1950s-60s were a period in which continental drift was still discredited but evidence kept piling up that the continents had shifted places over time. (Or: we knew the ocean floors were spreading, but didn't think that continents did as well.) It was only in the early 1970s that geologists fully developed the theory of plate tectonics to explain this evidence in a consistent and comprehensive way, which caused its acceptance as the scientific consensus. In these intervening decades, this chaos in the geological establishment lent some credence to out-there ideas like Hapgood's. As a result, Hapgood was able to get Albert Einstein[note 2] to write a foreword to The Earth's Shifting Crust, something cranks still bring up as an argument from authority.
Hapgood (like most geologists) did not accept continental drift. However, supposedly after a student asked him about the fictional continent of Mu, Hapgood wanted to find an explanation for the changes in the Earth's features over time which would also explain these supposed lost continents. This led him on the quest that brought him to numerous archival maps in the Library of Congress (such as the Piri Reis map) that supposedly showed ancient coastlines and what appeared to be a large southern continent that kind of resembled part of Antarctica. Hapgood thus came to the obvious conclusion: that Earth's crust has shifted suddenly in relation to its axis at periods in the past, causing massive changes to its surface.
A phenomenon called true polar wander does in fact exist and has been demonstrated. It occurs when wobbles in the Earth's core, or changes in the topography of the Mohorovičić discontinuity (crust–mantle boundary), change Earth's mass distribution. Earth has three principal moments of inertia: the largest has an axis aligned with Earth's axis of rotation, while the other have axes close to Earth's equator.[note 3] If the mass distribution changes, the latter two moments of inertia increase, causing their axes to shift out of alignment with the equator. Earth reorients in response to bring these back towards the equator, resulting in a geographic shift in the locations of the poles. Earth's rotational axis does not shift relative to the fixed stars, but the Earth itself reorients relative to its rotational axis, in the same way that any nonsymmetrical spinning object (say, an egg) will orient its longest axis to its rotational equator.
The rate of this shift is on the order of 1 degree per million years, though a more rapid shift occurred, about 800 million years ago, of 55 degrees over the course of 20 million years (2.75 deg/My). Rapid pole shift of the cataclysmic variety (on a timescale of years or less) would require a titanic change of the Earth's moments of inertia on a similarly outlandish timescale. Barring a massive planetary collision comparable to the hypothesised Earth-Theia collision, mechanisms that could cause such major changes in the inertial moments of a 5.9x1024-kg body with a mean density of 5.515 g/cm3 are somewhat difficult to imagine, and the effects of crust displacement would be utterly trivial compared to the effects of the forces causing it.
There are many very glaring problems with these ideas, which many cranks seem to ignore when ranting about them.
The first is that as Earth's crust is a really big shell of solid rock (with a bunch of water to boot), changing its axis of rotation would take a truly massive amount of force. Hapgood proposed as a mechanism that the area around the outer core heated up and caused the crust to rotate freely. How the interior would have heated up he did not go into. This is an example of fractal wrongness. Hapgood seems to have conceptualized the crust basically as a solid shell around a low-viscosity liquid layer, much like an eggshell around an egg; this "shell" would then be able to freely slide around. Needless to say, this is false. The lithosphere underlying the crust is rigid, and the asthenosphere underlying that is extremely viscous. Rock does not behave like water and transition immediately from a solid to a liquid at a fixed melting point. Now, if the Earth's interior became hotter, this indeed would increase the rate of tectonic activity and therefore plate motion. In fact, the Earth was hotter in the (geologic) past—planets cool over time—and evidence indeed shows that Earth had more tectonic activity billions of years ago. Of course, this rate was still nowhere near that needed to get the continents to slide around like hockey pucks. In fact, as internal temperatures continue to increase, current theories hold[note 4] that plate tectonics eventually stops, because the heat flux from the interior becomes overwhelming. Instead, heat transport becomes dominated by advection: basically massive volcanism, which transports heat to the surface more rapidly. This is seen today on bodies like Jupiter's moon Io. At even higher temperatures, of course, the crust becomes molten, which was Earth's initial state right after it formed. At least Hapgood had the partial excuse that plate tectonics was not fully developed at the time. Present-day cranks who continue to promote his ideas don't have that.
Hapgood also appears to think this means somehow Earth's crust would suddenly change direction randomly instead of obeying Newton's first law of motion and continuing to rotate in the same direction. To give an idea of the forces that would be involved, one hypothesis proposed to explain the Martian dichotomy holds that a large body impacted Mars, creating the North Polar Basin (a.k.a. Borealis Basin), which covers forty percent of the planet. This impact would have tilted Mars's axis 25 degrees from vertical. Mars is less than a ninth the mass of Earth. The giant impact hypothesis proposes that a similarly-large impact tilted Earth's axis by 23 degrees and formed the Moon; this would have hit so damn hard it is thought the entire crust and a large part of the mantle were pulverized and thrown into orbit before raining back down into a planetary magma ocean. In both cases, these titanic collisions still weren't enough to shift the planets' axes by even a third of a right angle. As a kicker, Uranus is bizarrely tilted "on its side", with an extreme axial tilt of 97 degrees. One or more impact events are hypothesized to be responsible for this as well; if a single impact, the impactor would have been more massive than Earth.
Hapgood gave as evidence for his hypothesis a map that seemed to show a 15-degree shift of Earth's axis in 9,600 BCE. If this happened quickly, and Hapgood explains in the hypothesis that it would be very sudden, all things on the crust would have suddenly moved 1,000 miles from where they were located…meaning all the animals would have been wiped out by hitting solid objects at over 1,000 miles/hour. Also the shift would have wiped out all tall geological features, including delicate ones like the arches in Utah. Let's not even get into the winds that would have resulted as the crust shifted while the atmosphere obeyed inertia, which would have made a hurricane look like a fart in comparison.
Of the several hundred maps Hapgood references, only the Piri Reis map seems to be real. For some reason no one else has been able to find any of the other maps, which seems to bring out the conspiracy-minded. The point of this deception, or who would benefit from it, is anyone's guess, but that hasn't stopped the Flat Earthers either. Besides pretty much every other historian disagreeing with his interpretation, Hapgood apparently felt this explanation made more sense than the idea that maps 11,000 years old might be distorted, out of scale, or just wrong.
William Hutton wrote a book in 1996 called Coming Earth Changes: Causes and Consequences of the Approaching Pole Shift, where he predicted it would happen before the end of 2001. Not to be stopped by his abject failure, he co-authored another book in 2004 with Jonathan Eagle, Earth's Catastrophic Past and Future: A Scientific Analysis of Information Channeled by Edgar Cayce where he just said it would happen "soon." Better hurry up and start your doomsday prepping!
In popular culture
Hapgood's crust displacement hypothesis was invoked in the movie 2012, which was plagued by insane explanations.
The film invoked neutrinos emitted by the Sun to explain how the interior of the Earth would have heated up, by showing the heat boiling the mile-long column of water in their neutrino detector. How it heated up the water there, without heating any of the water in the oceans, lakes, rivers, and in the cells of all living beings is unknown. In addition it states they only heated up the outer core, and not doing anything to the thousands of miles or rock between the Sun and the outer core. In the time it took you to read this paragraph, you've already had hundreds of trillions of neutrinos pass through you (50 trillion a second is the average).
While flying the aircraft to China, the crust of the Earth supposedly rotated several thousand miles so they would get there instead of crashing in the ocean. How no human felt this movement, by slamming into solid objects and turning into chunky salsa, while the ocean was moved by it to the point of wiping out Washington, D.C. and crossing the Himalayas in a tidal wave is unknown.
- The Path of the Pole by Charles H. Hapgood (2015). Adventures Unlimited Press, 2nd ed. ISBN 0932813712.
- 5/5/2000, ICE: The Ultimate Disaster by Richard W. Noone (1997). Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0609800671.
- Coming Earth Changes: Causes and Consequences of the Approaching Pole Shift by William Hutton (1996). A.R.E. Press. ISBN 0876043619.
- Earth's Catastrophic Past and Future: A Scientific Analysis of Information Channeled by Edgar Cayce by William Hutton & Jonathan Eagle (2004). Universal Publishers. ISBN 1581125178.