The magnetic north pole – that point which guides our compasses and GPS systems – has never been static.
But now, the north has moved so fast that scientists have been forced to update their model of the planet’s magnetic field a year earlier than expected.
“Due to unplanned variations in the Arctic region, scientists have released a new model to more accurately represent the change of the magnetic field,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information said in a press release Monday.
The change is crucial in order to pinpoint the precise location of the pole, ensuring that navigational systems (including mobile phone map-based apps), government organizations, airliners, and others can continue to work with accuracy.
Since 1831, the northern magnetic pole has shifted from Canada’s Arctic regions toward Russia in a relatively smooth manner.
The World Magnetic Model, funded by the U.S. and U.K. militaries, is tasked with tracking the positions of the Earth’s three magnetic poles. Normally, the model only requires an update every five years.
However, in recent years the pole’s drift has quickened its pace, moving in the direction of Russia at unprecedented speed, throwing off GPS systems and placing pilots and maritime navigators at risk – or forcing them to rely on old-school compass-based navigation.
Cierran Beggan, a geophysicist at the British Geological Survey, told The Guardian:
“We know from old ships’ logs that in the past 400 years, the north magnetic pole has hung around northern Canada. Until the 1900s, it moved perhaps tens of kilometers, back and forth.
But in the past 50 years it started to move north, and in the past 30 years it started to accelerate away … It went from moving at about five to 10km [ six miles] a year to 50 or 60km a year today. It’s now moving rapidly towards Siberia.”
The drift is the result of processes deep in the center of the planet, where the liquid outer core comprised of iron and nickel spins and flows like water, serving as a conductor for Earth’s magnetic field.
The recent change in the flow of the fluid is believed to be similar to the formation of a jet stream in the atmosphere, leading to changes in the planet’s magnetic field.
“The north magnetic pole has been caught up in this jet and it’s pushing it rapidly across to Siberia,” Beggan added.
This has caused the World Magnetic Model to lose accuracy at an increasingly higher pace, according to scientists.
“The error is increasing all the time,” Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and NOAA, told Nature.
However, these changes are all part and parcel of the natural behavior of the Earth and have not been caused by human activity. Rock samples reveal that the Earth’s magnetic field has been in perpetual motion for millions of years.
Migratory animals such as birds, butterflies, and whales use the magnetic field for directions.
If anything, the latest shift in the earth’s magnetic north pole is a learning opportunity for us humans, who only discovered the pole in 1831.
The newest version of the model should remain accurate for the time being, but is on track for another update next year.