Could the Earth be flat? Why science says no

In this article, Interesting Engineering discusses the scientific proofs debunking flat-Earth theories.
Sade Agard
Flat Earth concept
Flat Earth concept


  • Tens of thousands of people follow social media accounts dedicated to flat-Earth beliefs, which have experienced a resurgence in recent years.
  • Here we explore the potential impacts of a flat Earth, including changes to gravity, the atmosphere, and life as we know it.
  • While it may be intriguing to imagine counterfactual scenarios, the scientific evidence for a round Earth is overwhelming.

Ever consider what life would be like if Earth was genuinely flat? Imagine a world where gravity works in a completely different way and the horizon stretches out endlessly. As much as this may sound like a science fiction fantasy, the idea of a flat Earth has endured throughout history.

Truth is, the number of people who actually subscribe to the Flat Earth theory is uncertain. That said, we do know that despite scientific evidence against it, tens of thousands of people follow social media accounts dedicated to these beliefs. Additionally, 1 percent of Americans appear to believe the Earth is flat (if one poll makes a case!)

Better yet, the popularity of Flat Earth videos on YouTube and the realization that such content performs well has led to a resurgence of this idea in recent years—specifically, since 2014 and 2015.

But what if, by some incredible twist of fate, the Earth was indeed flat? In what ways could this scenario accommodate the planet and all life as we know it? This article will explore the potential impacts of a flat Earth, including what this would mean for gravity, the atmosphere, and all Earth's inhabitants.

How might a flat Earth impact gravity?

Gravity is one of the most fundamental forces in the universe, and it is responsible for keeping everything on Earth in its place. However, gravity would likely be affected in several ways if the Earth were flat.

First, the lack of a curved surface would mean that there would be no centrifugal force to balance out the force of gravity. This could lead to a lack of stability for objects on the surface, making it difficult for them to maintain a consistent motion.

Additionally, the distribution of mass on a flat Earth would be different than on a round Earth. The mass is distributed evenly around the planet's center on a round Earth, creating a uniform gravitational pull.

On a flat Earth, gravity would likely pull towards the center, concentrating mass there. This could also have the effect of pulling water toward the center and causing trees to grow diagonally since they develop in the opposite direction of gravity’s pull.

This uneven distribution of gravity would also significantly impact the motion of objects, including the oceans and atmosphere. For instance, the Moon's gravitational pull causes the tides as it tugs on the seas, generating bulges that can be seen from space.

In a flat Earth, this gravitational pull would not exist, which could result in the disappearance of tides altogether. Instead, all water would flow toward the center, according to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

In fact, in order for the planet to have a flat shape, gravity would likely not have any effect at all. This is because if gravity did exist, it would act to pull the planet back into a spheroid shape. 

Additionally, the Moon itself could not exist as we know it, in orbit around the Earth, as every explanation of its existence near our planet involves gravity. Gravitational attraction provides the centripetal force which keeps the moon in orbit around the Earth. Because a flat Earth would have no gravity, there will be no moon in orbit around it, as it would just float away into space.

Satellites would also not be possible, as they could not orbit and would somehow need to shuffle back and forth over the flat plane of the planet.

Of course, without gravity, the Earth would also shoot off into space, instead of orbiting around the Sun.

How might a flat Earth impact the atmosphere?

The atmosphere is crucial in maintaining a hospitable environment for life on Earth. It protects us from harmful radiation, regulates temperature, and helps distribute water and nutrients (to name a few). However, if the Earth were flat, the atmosphere would be affected in a number of ways.

One way is that the flat surface would not be able to support the same amount of atmosphere as a round Earth, which could lead to a much thinner atmosphere. Air could be pulled towards the center, leading to bizarre weather patterns and temperature changes.

Additionally, the rotation on a flat Earth would not produce the same Coriolis Effect we know on a round Earth. This effect is crucial for forming weather patterns; it causes air and water to move in rotating patterns.

This creates large-scale weather patterns like cyclones, hurricanes, and jet streams. A different Coriolis Effect, or the replacement of it altogether, could lead to less predictable and possibly more extreme weather.

How might a flat Earth impact what lies beneath our feet?

The Earth's magnetic field, which holds back the deadly solar radiation, is generated by the rotation of the planet's core. A flat earth would have no core, though, and something else would have to take its place.

Without the magnetic field we know today, the planet would be fried by charged particles from the suSunn. As hinted above, this would also strip away the atmosphere, which occurred when Mars' magnetic field collapsed, causing its air and oceans to escape into space. 

And, of course, the increased radiation that reached the surface, would make it almost impossible for life to survive. 

Plate movement and seismicity could not be adequately explained on a flat Earth because all tectonic plates can only rationally fit together on a round Earth.

We can see this in the way that the movements of plates in one area on Earth affect the movements of other plates in other areas. That means the existence of volcanoes and mountains would also need to be explained.

Additionally, what would prevent plates from tumbling off the planet's edge? Perhaps the 'wall of ice' that flat earth supporters believe prevents people from doing the same? This remains unclear. 

How would a flat Earth impact day and night, and seasons?

A flat Earth would not experience day and night as we know it. The Earth's round shape causes the planet's rotation on its axis, which leads to the alternation of day and night. A flat Earth would not have this rotation; there could be no definite boundary between day and night.

Similarly, a flat Earth would not experience seasons as we know them. The tilt of the Earth's axis causes the variation of seasons, with different parts of the Earth experiencing different climates depending on the time of year. A flat Earth would not have this tilt; therefore, it would not undergo the same seasonal variations.

How would a flat Earth impact life?

Could the Earth be flat? Why science says no
A rendered picture of the Flat Earth model

The changes to gravity and the atmosphere caused by a flat Earth would significantly impact life as we know it. The lack of a curved surface would make it difficult for life to adapt and survive.

For instance, the uneven distribution of gravity caused by a flat Earth would make it challenging for animals and planets to move and migrate. Additionally, the thin atmosphere would not be able to protect life from harmful radiation, making it harder for organisms to survive.

We know that plants and animals depend on delicate ecosystems to adapt and flourish. How would the unpredictable and possibly extreme weather patterns and temperature changes brought about by a flat Earth accommodate this? This would need an explanation. 

A flat Earth could also affect the oceans, likely causing water to pool in the center and changing the salinity and temperature of the water. These changes will make it difficult for marine life, as we know it, to survive.

Additionally, the lack of a Coriolis Effect (mentioned above) would disrupt ocean currents and the movement of water, which plays a crucial role in the distribution of nutrients and the formation of oceanic ecosystems.

A flat Earth: concluding notes 

While it may be intriguing to imagine counterfactual scenarios, the scientific evidence for a round Earth is overwhelming. We wouldn't experience the same seasons on a flat Earth, and day and night wouldn't have a clear distinction as we know them today.

Additionally, a flat Earth cannot account for the origin of the planet's mountain peaks, as well as the peculiarities of its oceans and magnetic field (to name a few).

In the end, life as we know it is made possible by many phenomena that a flat Earth just cannot explain- at least for now.

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