Published: Tue, February 05, 2019
Research | By Raquel Erickson

Check your compass: The magnetic north pole is on the move

Check your compass: The magnetic north pole is on the move

The natural movement of the magnetic North Pole has accelerated in recent years toward Siberia, threatening to throw the world's smartphones and Global Positioning System (GPS) off-kilter.

A more serious possible outcome of the "tug of war" between magnetic field patches in northern Canada and Siberia, which some scientists say is causing the accelerated movement of the magnetic north pole, is its potential to weaken the magnetic shield sparing earth from deadly solar and cosmic radiation. Because the magnetic north pole moves about 55 kilometers (34 miles) each year, governing agencies release updates to the model every five years. And unlike the geographic north pole, which is fixed, the north magnetic pole has been slowly migrating over time - moving across the Canadian Arctic toward Russian Federation since 1831. Currently, the northern magnetic pole is moving from the Canadian Arctic towards Siberia.

Airplanes and boats also rely on magnetic north, usually as backup navigation, said University of Colorado geophysicist Dr Arnaud Chulliat, lead author of the WMM.

Yet for the military sector, the World Magnetic Model is of strategic importance - unlike satellites, it can not be hacked by foreign powers. For example, the airport in Fairbanks, Alaska, renamed a runway 1L-19R to 2L-20R in 2009.

Its speed jumped from about 9 miles per hour (15 kph) to 34 miles per hour (55 kph) since 2000. The magnetic field changes due to unpredictable flows of the Earth's molten core.

'It has changes akin to weather, Mr Lathrop said. We might just call it magnetic weather'. North and south magnetic poles have traded places multiple times throughout history as shown from geologic observations, each change happening between 200,000 and 300,000 years apart.

This is the Earth's magnetic field, but perhaps not for much longer, because scientists fear the magnetic field will flip. Over the last 780,000 years, fossil records indicate that the poles have moved and switched a number of times, with no recognizable harm to living organisms.

'It's not a question of if it's going to reverse, the question is when it's going to reverse, ' Mr Lathrop said.

When it reverses, it won't be like a coin flip, but take 1,000 or more years, experts said.

Lathrop sees a flip coming sooner rather than later because of the weakened magnetic field and an area over the South Atlantic has already reversed beneath Earth's surface.

Given that most compasses in use for navigation are now digital or are part of digital systems, software updates can easily remedy the situation. And an overall weakening of the magnetic field isn't good for people and especially satellites and astronauts.

With the magnetic field of the Earth changing more than predicted, the values can be off requiring an out-of-cycle update such as this.

The pole has been the friend of navigators formillennia, beckoning compass needles from virtually every point on the planet.

"The slowly moving plates act as a kind of tape recorder leaving information about the strength and direction of past magnetic fields".

'Our war fighters use magnetics to orient their maps.

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