Our Magnetic North Has Changed: How It Affects You

Representation of Earth’s magnetic field and how it protects us from solar winds.

Representation of Earth’s magnetic field and how it protects us from solar winds.

Despite popular belief, magnetic north is not, nor has it ever been stationary. Powered by the outer portion of Earth’s core that resides 1,800 miles beneath the surface, magnetic north is ever-changing position across the Northern Hemisphere. Thus far, scientists have no clear answer behind why magnetic north has moved so much, but with such large changes scientists have worked on an emergency update to the World Magnetic Model. 

The updates official release was halted by the most recent government shutdown as Nature News reported earlier this year. Finally, this past Monday, 02/04/2019, the World Magnetic Model update was released. With the new update, citizens can continue to read magnetic north accurately and scientists can continue research on why magnetic north is changing position so fast.

What Caused The Rapid Change?

The effects of magnetic north’s move across the Northern hemisphere is not just about mapping, but also a way for scientists to further study the processes that happen thousands of miles below Earth’s surface. Phil Livermore, a geophysicist at the University of Leeds, proposed a magnetic field “tug-of-war” to demonstrate a reasoning for the most recent behavior of the outer crust, at the 2018 American Geophysical Union fall meeting. His theory states that the north magnetic pole appears to be controlled by two patches of magnetic field: one under northern Canada and one under Siberia. He continued explaining that the patch under northern Canada seems to have been becoming more vigorous, keeping the magnetic pole in its control.

Recently, domination has changed hands with the patch under Siberia being triumphant. “The Siberian patch looks like it’s winning the battle,” he continued. “It’s sort of pulling the magnetic field all the way across to its side of the geographic pole.” A possible cause for this may be a jet within the core smearing and therefore diminishing the magnetic field under Canada. The escalation in speed of the jet seems to correspond with the magnetic poles’ movement towards the north in the last few decades. He did say he would be cautious about jumping to any definite conclusions though.

There’s More Than One North Pole

When you were a young child your parents probably told you that Santa Claus and his elves lived in the North Pole. Imagine how shocked you would have been to learn there are three north poles. One such north pole is true north, which is the northern end of the axis that Earth revolves around. Earth has a magnetic shielding called the magnetosphere that serves as a defense against the sun’s solar winds. The magnetosphere is not perfectly aligned with Earths spin around this axis.

Finally, there is the magnetic north that our compass locates, which is the point that magnetic field lines point vertically down. The major difference between magnetic north and geomagnetic north is: geomagnetic force is more susceptible to the waves that churn in the liquid iron in the core. The waves pull on the magnetic field, and the pull is what is causing the magnetic north to move so much throughout the globe. “The north magnetic pole is quite a sensitive place” Phil Livermore told National Geographic.

How Did the Government Shutdown Impact the World Magnetic Model Update?

Technically, a portion of the model update was pre-released. The pre-released segment was made when scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the British Geographic Survey (BGS), used what information they had from the last three years of data to adjust the model. The update was pre-released online in October 2018. The dominant users of this updated model who were allowed initial access were the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.K. Ministry of Defense, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The above organizations use the model for defense and military purposes.

The remainder of the update to the model was meant to be released shortly after the pre-release, but was delayed due to the recent government shutdown. The rest of the update, the delayed release, included online calculators, software, and a detailed remark defining the changes. A geomagnetist from the University of Colorado and a NOAA affiliate, Arnaud Chulliat, told National Geographic “In principal, everyone who uses magnetic navigation could benefit from this update.”

The model is present in everyday society as well, not just in the military. It is necessary in modern mapping systems such as Google and Apple. The changes are negligible for civilians and are most significant on latitudes above 55 degrees. Beggan continued “The average user is not going to be overly affected by this unless they happened to be trekking around the high Arctic.”

History Of The World Magnetic Model

In 1831 in the Nunavut territory of Canada, James Clark Ross first located magnetic north. The pole has moved North, spanning hundreds of miles in the past few decades. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the British Geographic Survey (BGS) created what is now known as the World Magnetic Model. Usually, the model is updated every five years, 2015 being the last official update.

Each update provides alterations based on tests scientists have completed assessing the accuracy against the data from ground magnetic examinations and the European Space Agency’s Swarm mission. The Swarm mission is a triplet of magnetic-field mapping satellites that spin around Earth 15 to 26 times each day. Then why an early update? In early 2018, scientists noticed that the model would no longer be able to provide adequate information for magnetic-based navigation and a new update would need to be completed before 2020. At first, the ground magnetic examinations and the Swarm mission were satisfactory in keeping up with magnetic north’s movement towards Siberia.

Back in the 1900’s, the north magnetic pole only moved at around one-hundred feet per day, which is less than seven miles of difference from year to year. In the 1990’s this number escalated and by the early 2000’s was already up to 34 miles difference between years. Phil Livermore identified the rise in movement accompanied the boost in force of the planets ever spinning liquid outer core. No evidence has yet been substantial to prove this as fact, but it is a theory many scientists run with.

What Happens Next?

Predictions about what the future holds for the magnetic north pole or if it will simply maintain force as it proceeds north are difficult to determine, declared Robyn Fiori, a research scientist with Natural Resources Canada. The only thing scientists can guarantee about magnetic north is how unpredictable it is. In the last 20 million years, magnetic north and south have traded position multiple times, based on analysis of rocks. One flip seems to occur about once every 200,000 to 300,000 years.

“There’s no indication that there’s a reversal,” Beggan says. “And even if there was a reversal, geological records show these things tend to take a few thousand years, at the very least.” Models of magnetic north convey that the most recent bounce isn’t the most bizarre thing the pole has done recently: being outdone by the multiple hairpin turns in northern Canada that sent the pole momentarily southward before 1900. “It all has to do with changes in the fluid motion of the outer core,” she stated. From this, it is hard to identify whether this current speed is the new standard.

“We know that the pole now is moving faster than it has for decades, but how often does that happen in the long historical record?” Geoff Reeves, a space scientist at Los Alamos inquired. “We don’t have any idea. What we know is what it’s doing now is different, and that’s always exciting scientifically.”

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Cheyann is a reporter at GoldenGOAT Articles that specializes in lifestyle, innovation, environment and the health care industry. After graduating high school with high honors in science and mathematics, she went on to college to specialize in biomedical engineering.