Earth’s magnetic north is shifting at an ‘unprecedented’ rate of 30 miles a year – throwing satellite positioning data and navigation systems off course
- New World Magnetic Model reveals movements in the Earth’s magnetic field
- Earth’s magnetic north pole is moving towards Siberia and away from Canada
- Northern lights may be harder to see from Canada as the magnetic north shifts
- Magnetic devices and GPS systems used by military and aviation industries rely on accurate magnetic field readings
The Earth’s magnetic North Pole is travelling at an unprecedented rate and is picking up speed as it moves towards Siberia, according to new satellite data.
The magnetic North Pole is the wandering point on the surface of Earth’s Northern Hemisphere at which the planet’s magnetic field – created by molten iron within the planet’s core – points vertically downwards.
The latest World Magnetic Model, which tracks the movement of the Earth’s magnetic field, shows that the magnetic north is moving at a rate of 30 miles per year.
This is the fastest recorded shift of the Earth’s north since the mid-16th century and could cause havoc for aviation and navigation systems, including smartphone apps that use GPS.
The WMM has also located ‘caution zones’ on Earth around the magnetic fields where compasses may be prone to errors and send users off course.
New World Magnetic Map data shows Earth’s magnetic north is moving at 31 miles per year, up from just 6.2 miles around 20 years ago, away from Canada and towards Siberia
New World Magnetic Map data shows how Earth’s magnetic north has moved away from Canada and towards Siberia. The dip pole is the magnetic pole where a free-swinging compass needle points directly into the ground. The geomagnetic pole is the position of the pole if the Earth’s magnetic field was like a bar magnet. The difference between them show how distorted the magnetic field has become
‘The magnetic North Pole wandered slowly around northern Canada from 1590 to around 1990 and then accelerated over the past 20 years moving from around 10 km (6.2 miles) per year to over 50 km (31 miles) per year,’ Ciaran Beggan of the British Geological Survey told MailOnline.
‘In contrast, the south magnetic pole has barely moved much in the past 100 years as the flow of the outer core there is much more sedate.’
After circling northern Canada for hundreds of years, the approximate location of the magnetic north pole started moving speedily towards Siberia at around the turn of the century.
Magnets rely on the Earth’s magnetic field to send users in the right direction, but the problem is the magnetic field is constantly shifting around over time
The south magnetic pole has barely moved in the past 100 years compared to the north pole
WHAT IS THE WORLD MAGNETIC MODEL?
The World Magnetic Model is a key tool to model the change in the Earth’s magnetic field.
It gives accuracy to compasses, maps and GPS services by tracking irregular changes in the Earth’s magnetic core.
A new version of the World Magnetic Model is released every five years.
The current version, WMM2020, is only valid until 2025 to account for unpredictable magnetic changes.
Data from European Space Agency satellites and 160 land-based observatories as recently as October were used to map WMM2020.
The WMM is the standard model used by UK and US defence departments, NATO and the International Hydraulic Organisation.
It is mainly paid for and used by the military but it remains free for anyone else who needs it.
In recent months, it has crossed the Greenwich meridian line – the line of Zero Longitude from which all other longitudinal lines are measured.
Earth’s magnetic field is created by the movement of liquid iron in the Earth’s outer core, some 1,800 miles below our feet.
The iron is super hot (over 5,432 degrees Fahrenheit) and as runny as water meaning it flows very easily.
As the liquid flows, it drags the magnetic field with it.
‘We think the magnetic north pole has been sucked into a fast moving jet stream near the top of the planet and that’s causing it to be pulled from Canada to Siberia,’ Dr Beggan said.
‘There are other factors, but that is the main one.’
Since its discovery in 1831, the north magnetic pole has travelled a total of around 1,400 miles.
This movement has been generally quite slow, but since the turn of the century has sped up – reaching an average speed of about 34 miles per year.
The shift will mean there will be less chance to see the Aurora in place of northern Canada
The new WMM forecasts that the northern magnetic pole will continue drifting towards Siberia in the next five years, at a slightly slower speed of about 25 miles per year.
The move also means that the northern lights will move slightly away from northern Canada towards Siberia, meaning there will be less chance to see them in some areas there.
The World Magnetic Model is a vital tool for civilian navigation systems and marine and aviation charts, which need to constantly adjust their measurements to account for the shifts in magnetic north.
Airport runways also rely on the navigation aid and use WMM data to give runways numerical names, which pilots refer to on the ground.
It’s the standard model used for navigation by the UK Ministry of Defence and the US Department of Defence – and even compasses and smartphone apps that rely on GPS.
If you have smartphone with a map application (and an inbuilt compass which most phones do), then Google or Apple will change the magnetic field map in the next few months, as part of the general software updates.
The WMM is jointly put together by the British Geological Survey and the USA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
It’s updated every five years to take account of the unpredictability of the Earth’s magnetic field.
The updated model also confirms that the Earth’s magnetic field is weakening by about 5 per cent every century.
If this continues, the field could eventually reverse, which would have dire consequences for any civilisation around to witness it, because the magnetic field would no longer shield the Earth against damaging solar and cosmic radiation.
‘If the field does reverse, it typically takes 5,000-10,000 years to do so,’ said Dr Beggan.
‘The usual process is that the two strong magnetic poles (north and south) vanish slowly, to be replaced by lots of local poles (so a compass points to its nearest ‘pole’).
‘This state lasts a few thousand years and then the (reversed) south and north magnetic poles re-establish themselves.
‘We won’t know if we’re in a reversal for a long time – certainly much longer than the average human lifetime.’
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