North is not quite where it used to be. Earth’s North Magnetic Pole has been drifting so fast in the last few decades that scientists say past estimates are no longer accurate enough for precise navigation.
On Monday, they released an update of where the magnetic north really is, nearly a year ahead of schedule.
The North Magnetic Pole is wandering about 55km/year. It crossed the international dateline in 2017 and is leaving the Canadian Arctic on its way to Siberia.
The constant shift is a problem for compasses in smartphones and some consumer electronics. Planes and boats also rely on magnetic north, usually as backup navigation, said University of Colorado geophysicist Arnaud Chulliat, lead author of the newly issued World Magnetic Model.
GPS is not affected because it is satellite-based.
The US military depends on where magnetic north is for navigation and parachute drops, while Nasa, the Federal Aviation Administration and US Forest Service also use it.
Airport runway names are based on their direction towards magnetic north and their names change when the poles move. For example, the airport in Fairbanks, Alaska, renamed a runway 1L-19R to 2L-20R in 2009.
The US and UK tend to update the location of the North Magnetic Pole every five years in December, but this update came early because of the pole’s faster movement.
The movement of the magnetic north pole “is pretty fast”, Chulliat said.
Jump in movement
Since 1831, when it was first measured in the Canadian Arctic, it has moved about 2XXXXX250km towards Siberia. Its speed has jumped from about 14.5km/year to 55km/year since 2000.
The reason is turbulence in Earth’s liquid outer core. There is a hot liquid ocean of iron and nickel in the planet’s core where the motion generates an electric field, said University of Maryland geophysicist Daniel Lathrop. “It has changes akin to weather,” he said. “We might just call it magnetic weather.”
The South Magnetic Pole is moving far slower than the north.
In general Earth’s magnetic field is getting weaker, leading scientists to say it will eventually flip, where the North and South poles change polarity, like a bar magnet flipping over.
It has happened numerous times in Earth’s past, but not in the last 780 000 years. “It’s not a question of if it’s going to reverse, the question is when it’s going to reverse,” Lathrop said. When it does, it will not be like a coin flip, but will take a thousand or more years, experts said.
Lathrop sees a flip coming sooner rather than later because of the weakened magnetic field, and an area of the South Atlantic has already reversed beneath Earth’s surface.
That could bother some birds that use magnetic fields to navigate, and an overall weakening of the magnetic field is not good for people and especially satellites and astronauts.
The magnetic field shields Earth from some dangerous radiation, Lathrop said.