The Earth rotates around an axis, an imaginary straight line that all points not on the line move around in circles. The axis passes through the Earth’s North Pole and the South Pole. So the positions of the two Poles are defined by the position of the rotation axis.
Interestingly, the Earth’s rotation axis is not fixed – it moves slightly. This means that the Earth’s poles move.
The positions of the Earth’s poles can be determined by looking at the motions of the stars. As we’ve already seen, if you observe the positions of stars throughout a night, you will see that they rotate in the sky about a central point. The point on the Earth’s surface directly underneath the centre of rotation of the stars is one of the poles of the Earth.
Through the 19th century, astronomers were improving the precision of astronomical observations to the point where the movement of the Earth’s rotational poles needed to be accounted for in the positions of celestial objects. The motion of the poles was also beginning to affect navigation, because as the poles move, so does the grid system of latitude and longitude that ships rely on to reach their destinations and avoid navigational hazards. In 1899 the International Geodetic Association established a branch known as the International Latitude Service.
The fledgling International Latitude Service established a network of six observatories, all located close to latitude 39° 08’ north, spread around the world. The initial observatories were located in Gaithersburg, Maryland, USA; Cincinatti, Ohio, USA; Ukiah, California, USA; Mizusawa, Japan; Charjui, Turkestan; and Carloforte, Italy. The station in Charjui closed due to economic problems caused by war, but a new station opened in Kitab, Uzbekistan after World War I. Each observatory engaged in a program of observing the positions of 144 selected reference stars, and the data from each station were cross referenced to provide accurate measurements of the location of the North Pole.
In 1962, the International Time Bureau founded the International Polar Motion Service, which incorporated the International Latitude Service observations and additional astronomical observations to provide a reference of higher accuracy, suitable for both navigation and defining time relative to Earth’s rotation. Finally in 1987, the the International Astronomical Union and the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics established the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS), which took over from the International Polar Motion Service. The IERS is the current authority responsible for timekeeping and Earth-based coordinate systems, including the definitions of time units, the introduction of leap seconds to keep clocks in synch with the Earth’s rotation, and definitions of latitude and longitude, as well as measurements of the motion of the Earth’s poles, which are necessary for accurate use of navigation systems such as GPS and Galileo.
The motion of Earth’s poles can be broken down into three components:
1. An annual elliptical wobble. Over the period of a year, the Earth’s poles move around in an ellipse, with the long axis of the ellipse about 6 metres in length. In March, the North Pole is about 6 metres from where it is in September (though see below). This motion is generally agreed by scientists to be caused by the annual shift in air pressure between winter and summer over the northern and southern hemispheres. In particular there is an imbalance between the Northern Atlantic ocean and Asia, with higher air pressure over the ocean in the northern winter, but higher air pressure over the Asian continent in summer. This change in the mass distribution of the atmosphere is enough to cause the observed wobble.
2. Superimposed on the annual elliptical wobble is another, circular, wobble, with a period of around 433 days. This is called the Chandler wobble, named after its discoverer, American astronomer Seth Carlo Chandler, who found it in 1891. The Chandler wobble occurs because the Earth is not a perfect sphere. The Earth is slightly elliptical, with the radius at the equator about 20 kilometres larger than the polar radius. When elliptical objects spin, they experience a slight wobble in the rotation known as free nutation. This is the sort of wobble seen in a spinning rugby ball or American football in flight (where the effect is exaggerated by the ball’s exaggerated elliptical shape). This wobble would die away over time, but is driven by changes in the mass distribution of cold and warm water in the oceans and high and low pressure systems in the atmosphere. The Chandler wobble has a diameter of about 9 metres at the poles.
The combined effect of the annual wobble and the Chandler wobble is that the North and South Poles move in a spiralling pattern, sometimes circling with a diameter up to 15 metres, then reducing down to about 3 metres, before increasing again. This beat pattern occurs over a period of about 7 years.
3. The third and final motion of the Earth’s poles is a systematic drift, of about 200 millimetres per year. Since 1900, the central point of the spiral wobbles of the North Pole has drifted by about 20 metres. This drift is caused by changes in the mass distribution of Earth due to shifts in its structure: movement of molten rock in the mantle, isostatic rebound of crust following the last glacial period, and more recently the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The melting of the Greenland ice sheet in the last few decades has shifted the direction of polar drift dramatically; one of the serious indications of secondary changes to the Earth caused by human-induced climate change. Changes in Earth’s mass distribution alter its rotational moment of inertia, and the rotational axis adjusts to conserve angular momentum.
Each of the three components of Earth’s polar motion are: (a) observable with 19th century technology, (b) accurately measurable using current technology, and (c) understandable and quantitatively explainable using the fact that the Earth is a rotating spheroid and our knowledge of its structure.
If the Earth were flat, it would not be possible to reconcile the changes in position of the North and South Poles with the known shifts in mass distribution of the Earth. The Chandler wobble would not even have any reason to exist at close to its observed period unless the Earth was an almost spherical ellipsoid.
 Höpfner, J. “Polar motion at seasonal frequencies”. Journal of Geodynamics, 22, p. 51-61, 1996. https://doi.org/10.1016/0264-3707(96)00012-9
 Dick, W., Thaller, D. IERS Annual Report 2013. International Earth Rotation Service, 2014. https://www.iers.org/IERS/EN/Publications/AnnualReports/AnnualReport2013.html