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Earth’s magnetic north is rushing towards Siberia: Should you worry?

Earth’s northern magnetic pole is moving quickly away from the Canadian Arctic towards Siberia, which has forced scientists to update the WMM mid-cycle.

By: Tech Desk | New Delhi | Published: December 20, 2019 2:57:28 pm
This map shows the location of the north magnetic pole (white star) and the magnetic declination (contour interval 2 degrees) at the beginning of 2019. (Image: NOAA NCEI/CIRES)

It is not uncommon for the magnetic north pole to move but instead of drifting around aimlessly, it has picked up speed and is heading away from the Canadian Arctic towards Siberia. The pace of the movement is remarkable and it has left the scientist baffled and increased concerns over navigation, especially in high latitudes.

The magnetic north pole or the ‘N’ on the compass is different from the geographic north pole. While the latter is in the same place as it always was the latter is never truly stationary as the fluctuations in the flow of molten iron within the Earth’s core keep affecting the Earth’s magnetic field.

The magnetic north was first discovered in 1831 and it has travelled around 2,250 kilometres since then. Generally, its wandering speed remains quite slow allowing scientists to keep a track of its position fairly easily, However, according to the NOAA’s National Centres for Environmental Information (NCEI), the drifting speed of the magnetic north has quickened in the past few decades, accelerating to an average speed of 55 kilometres per year.

Although scientists can’t fully explain the core fluctuations responsible for the drifting of North pole, World Magnetic Model (WMM) allows them to map Earth’s magnetic field and calculate its rate of change over time. This system is a representation of the magnetic field observations that power navigational tools like GPS, mapping services, and consumer compass apps.

The World Magnetic Model out-of-cycle release. (Image: https://www.ncei.noaa.gov)

Government agencies all over the world — including NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the US Forest Service — use the magnetic poles in their daily operations from mapping to air traffic control.

The WMM readings have to be updated every five years to keep the model accurate. It was last updated in 2015 and but the sudden movement of the magnetic north has pushed the WMM bodies to update the model early.

Unlike the geographic poles, the magnetic poles can actually flip if they move far enough out of position. Scientific evidence suggests that it has happened in the past and the phenomenon can happen every few hundred of thousands of years. Scientists do not know when the next flip will happen and there is no evidence that such a flip is imminent. However, if it does, there will be implications on human life as we depend heavily on technologies that rely on magnetic poles.

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