Earth’s north magnetic pole is heading for Russia at an unprecedented rate, scientists say

The latest update of the World Magnetic Model shows that the north magnetic pole is drifting towards Siberia at an unprecedented rate. Map of 2015 Arctic magnetic declination. (Courtesy of NOAA NCEI)
The direction indicated by our compasses, the magnetic north pole, is not fixed, unlike the geographic north. In fact, it is moving pretty fast and even more in recent years.

Since its official discovery in 1831, the north magnetic pole has been slowly moving across the Canadian Arctic towards Russia, travelling some 2,250 km. Scientists could then follow it fairly easily because of its pace, but that has changed since the turn of the century, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

Over the past 20 years, the speed of the north magnetic pole has gone from 10 kilometres per year to 50 kilometres. In September 2019, magnetic north even aligned briefly with true geographic north (where all lines of longitude converge at the North Pole) as it passed over the prime meridian.

This was the first time since about 1660 that the compass needle pointed directly to true north in Greenwich, London (where the prime meridian is located) before slowly turning east. As the prime meridian, the north-south line at Greenwich is used as the reference for all other meridians of longitude, which are numbered east or west of it.

This acceleration forced scientists to update their forecast of the planet’s magnetic field one year ahead of schedule. The World Magnetic Model (WMM), developed by the National Centers for Environmental Information and the British Geological Survey, is usually published every five years. This time, however, they had to release an out-of-cycle update in February 2019.

This is only the second time in recorded history such update is published, according to the British Geological Survey (BGS).

Animated map showing the changes in declination location and the “wandering” of the North Magnetic Pole over the last 50 years. (courtesy of NOAA NCEI)
Magnetic north has left Canada for Russia

In December 2019, the teams of scientists finally published the full WMM, which will run until 2025.

The report forecasts that the northern magnetic pole will continue drifting towards Russia, although at a slowly decreasing speed—down to about 40 km per year.

“The recent changes of the field have been of particular interest at high northern latitudes, as since the 1990s the motion of the north magnetic dip pole has accelerated more quickly than at any point the last 400 years,” explains Dr. Will Brown of the BGS Geomagnetism Team in a blog post.

If the pole continues to move as scientists predict, “by 2040, all compasses will probably point eastwards of true north,” said Ciaran Beggan, a scientist from the BGS in a press release.

The magnetic poles’ movement is not fully understood by scientists. The main assumption is that since the Earth’s magnetic field is created by its constantly moving, molten iron core, its poles are not stationary and they move independently of each other.

The Earth’s magnetic field consists of a kind of bubble made of geomagnetic energy that protects our planet from radiation coming from the sun.

Map representing the trajectory of the magnetic north pole between 1590 and 2020. The magnetic north positions observed between 1831 and 2007 are shown as yellow squares. Modeled pole locations from 1590 to 2020 are shown as circles progressing from blue to yellow. (courtesy of NOAA NCEI)
Crucial for navigation systems

Knowing where the magnetic north is is essential for the proper functioning of our navigation systems.

Any updates to the WMM are closely monitored by European and American militaries, since their navigation systems rely on it. Organizations such as NATO, the UK Ministry of Defence, and the US Department of Defense as well as smartphone operating systems such as Android and iOS and commercial airlines all rely on this report.

The WMM consists mainly of a list of numbers that enable devices and navigators to predict the behaviour of the magnetic field. This allows us to estimate where the magnetic field will be at any given time within the next five years.

“Technology from planes to cars, smartphones to drills for hydrocarbon exploration rely on the WMM behind the scenes, and many of us use it every day without ever realizing!” writes Dr. Brown in his blog.

Airport runways are a concrete example of a navigational aid updated to adapt to variations in the Earth’s magnetic field. US airports use WMM’s data to “give runaways numerical names, which pilots refer to on the ground”, explains the National Centers for Environmental Information on their website.

However, when we consider our daily lives, changes in the magnetic field do not affect us as much as we might think.

“Compasses and GPS will work as usual; there’s no need for anyone to worry about any disturbance to daily life,” said Dr Beggan.

Those really affected are only the directional drilling companies and the U.S. Department of Defense, he added.

These drilling companies use compasses and magnetic fields to guide drill bits. The Department of Defense, meanwhile, wants as much accuracy as possible for the navigation systems of its planes, submarines and parachutes.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: What are the northern lights?, CBC News

Finland: Finland to headquarter Europe’s new atmospheric research center, Yle News

Greenland: Evidence of powerful solar storm which occurred 2,600 years ago found in Greenland ice, CBC News

Norway: NASA and Norway to develop observation station in Arctic, The Independent Barents Obsever

Russia: Scientists surprised to discover meteor exploded over Bering Sea in December, CBC News

Sweden: Meteorite from Arctic Sweden fetches thousands at auction, Radio Sweden

United States: New map shows what Bering land bridge looked like 18,000 years ago, CBC News

Mathiew Leiser, Eye on the Arctic

Mathiew Leiser, Eye on the Arctic

Born in the south of France to an English mother and a French father, Mathiew Leiser travelled the world from an early age. After studying international journalism in London, he quickly acquired different journalistic skills by working as a freelance journalist in various news organisations. From the BBC to Agence France Presse and the UGC agency Newsflare, Mathiew has acquired experience in various fields of journalism. In 2019, he decided to settle in Montreal to face its harsh winters and enjoy its beautiful summers but above all to develop his journalism. He quickly joined Radio Canada International where he strives to give the best of himself within the various teams.

One thought on “Earth’s north magnetic pole is heading for Russia at an unprecedented rate, scientists say

  • Avatar
    Tuesday, December 31, 2019 at 10:51
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    Is it possible that Russia use a string of very powerful electromagnets to divert the earth’s magnetic field for some unknown benefits that i am not aware of ?

    Reply
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