Science

Earth's north magnetic pole sprints toward Siberia

An update to the  World Magnetic Model (WMM) was required early due to the north magnetic pole moving faster than expected
An update to the  World Magnetic Model (WMM) was required early due to the north magnetic pole moving faster than expected
View 2 Images
An update to the  World Magnetic Model (WMM) was required early due to the north magnetic pole moving faster than expected
1/2
An update to the  World Magnetic Model (WMM) was required early due to the north magnetic pole moving faster than expected
Location of the north magnetic pole (white star)  at the beginning of 2019
2/2
Location of the north magnetic pole (white star)  at the beginning of 2019

North isn't quite where it was after the Earth's north geomagnetic pole made an unexpected sprint across arctic Canada. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), scientists at the agency's National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) bureau have had to update its World Magnetic Model (WMM) almost a year early because the magnetic pole is moving faster than predicted, which could affect global navigation.

"I am as constant as the northern star," said Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play of the same name, and it seems obvious that north must be an unchangeable fact in our lives. But is it?

In one sense, yes it is. The North Pole, which is the point marking the Earth's axis is constant within a reasonable degree. It may wobble a few inches a year due to tidal effects of the Sun, Moon, and planets, but it tends to stay put. The direction to the North Pole is what's known as true north.

However, the magnetic poles are another matter and it is to these poles that magnetic compasses point. What draws the needle of a compass to point north are the lines of the Earth's magnetic field, which is generated by the liquid iron core of the planet, turning it into a gigantic dynamo.

The problem is that this magnetic field is very uneven due to the effects of the Sun, the interior dynamics of the Earth, and the uneven nature of the crust. It's a phenomenon that's been known almost as long as compasses have been commonly used and it's the reason why navigational charts have notations indicating how to calculate the difference between magnetic north and true north in a particular area, which can vary by several degrees.

Location of the north magnetic pole (white star)  at the beginning of 2019
Location of the north magnetic pole (white star)  at the beginning of 2019

In an age of GPS, old fashioned compasses may seem redundant, but magnetic navigation is still vital in the 21st century. GPS hasn't replaced the compass, merely enhanced it and a functioning compass is necessary for smartphone navigation apps, military operations, air traffic control, and satellite tracking, to name a few examples.

In fact, ships and aircraft, no matter how sophisticated their navigation systems, must still carry a magnetic compass by law. Even something as simple as airport runways are affected. The designations you see at the end of the runway when coming into land are abbreviations of its alignment to magnetic north and must be changed as the pole shifts, which is why Fairbanks International Airport in Alaska had to get out the paint brushes in 2009 to change 1L-19R to 2L-20R.

Because the compass is so important, NCEI and the British Geological Survey produce an updated model of the WMM every five years. Based on satellite observations, a global network of 120 magnetic observatories, and data from geological surveys of changes in the magnetic field over the centuries, scientists have been able to produce an accurate map of the field going back to the year 1590.

According to NOAA, the WMM was scheduled to be updated at the end of 2019 and released as WMM2020, but the magnetic pole has shifted so far in the direction of Siberia so quickly that it reached a speed of over 34 mi (55 km) per year. Therefore, an unusual early update was required to ensure safe navigation – especially in the polar regions where magnetic compasses become unreliable.

As to why this sudden shift is occurring, National Geographic reports that the north magnetic pole is being pulled by two patches of magnetic field – one under Canada and another Siberia – and that the Canadian one appears to be weakening.

Source: NOAA

10 comments
Fletcher
It took several minutes for me to grasp the gravity of this news when I heard it several months ago. This is most likely the reason for the spiked climate affects we've been seeing all over the world and when the poles do shift we will probably see the equator shift and other severe changes such as huge tsunami's, huge earth quakes caused by continental shifts not just fault releases and increased large volcanic activity. Unfortunately there's no way of saying where it will be safe.
TrendMillwork
The question that now needs to be answered scientifically is, "Does the incremental movement of the poles change Earth's weather?" As written in Saul Alinsky's 1971 book 'Rules For Radicals'; "Never let a good crisis go to waste."
reholmes
While the spin axis of the earth may indeed wobble (precession and nutation) in relation to the ecliptic, the North Pole remains right where Bob Peary (disputed) found it.
ljaques
OhnoOhnoOhnoWe'reAllGonnaDieAgainAgain, Fletcher! And what has man done =this= time to cause the obviously anthropogenic problem, hmmm, Boopsie? MSM headlines read "sprinting", "hurtling", "speeds", and "rushing" today. Since 1831, the standard movement is 10km/year. We recently saw where airports were updating their runway references by one digit. I learned about declination as a Cub Scout fifty some odd years ago. From a Scientific American article "The North magnetic pole seems to be moving northward at an average rate of 10 kilometers per year. Yet there is also some elliptical motion to this general trend. On any given day, the magnetic pole may be as much as 80 kilometers away from its average position, depending on the geomagnetic disturbances in the ionosphere and magnetosphere." --== Imagine my yawn. ==--
rude.dawg
Does this mean the Antarctic will go back to being a tropical paradise again?
Martin Hone
Should I buy a new, updated compass then ? :-)
Pierre Collet
"I am as constant as the northern star," said Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play of the same name, and it seems obvious that north must be an unchangeable fact in our lives. But is it? Well, the position of the Northern star wrt Earth will not change in a while, so Julius Caesar (and Shakespeare) statement is not affected by the movement of Earth's magnetic North.
Fletcher
back at ljaques- I have never been one to say we're all gonna die but under this case a large majority of the worlds population will be severely affected on the coastline. Having already checked into this what the article doesn't state is the Northern pole shift, the south Atlantic magnetic anomaly, and the Earth's magnetic shielding have all been exponentially changing for the worse over the last 20 yrs (ljaques look up exponential). Also not mentioned is the fact that the Northern pole wasn't split before, that's something that happens on the sun just before the sun's magnetic poles flip (which happens ~ every 11 years in a 22 year cycle). It's been 750,000 years since our last flip on a cycle that's usually 250,000 years we're statistically significantly overdue for this one. God I hate writing comments.
ljaques
Back at Fletcher: So, if this flip happens, is there anything we can do about it? No. Is there anything we could do to prevent it? No. The article said nothing about a split at the Northern pole. The article said nothing about exponential shifts. (Exponential means "a tee tiny bit more", rie? <snort>) Granted, a pole swap would bring truckloads of crap upon us. But the Earth is going to do what she's going to do, and there is nothing we could/can do about it except be human and survive it. The good news is that I missed your "This is most likely the reason for the spiked climate affects we've been seeing" the first time around but saw it this time. Yes, it could affect us, but cycles of the sun are likely the more dominant suspects.
Kpar
Fletcher, you might want to dig out an old sci-fi novel called the "H.A.B. Theory". It tells a story about a situation much like you described. A fun read, but not very realistic. rude.dawg, you are correct, if you are willing to wait. I don't intend to be here that long. ljacques, you are right as rain.