The magnetic North Pole has begun moving erratically, scientists warn

The movement of the Earth's magnetic poles are shown in this animation at 10-year intervals from 1970 to 2020. The red and blue lines show the difference between magnetic north and true north depending on where you are standing. On the green line, a compass would point to true north. Pic. NOAA National Centres for Environmental Information.

Earth’s north magnetic pole has been “skittering” away from Canada towards Siberia according to the science journal Nature.

This behaviour of the pole is driven by liquid iron moving around in the planet’s core.

The World Magnetic Model, which describes the planet’s magnetic field and which underlies all modern navigation – from the systems that steer ships at sea to Google Maps on smartphones – was set to be updated on 15 January but due to the ongoing US government shutdown this has had to be postponed to 30 January.

The most recent version of the model came out in 2015 and was supposed to last until 2020, but the magnetic field is changing so fast that researchers have to fix the model now.

“The error is increasing all the time,” says Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Centres for Environmental Information.

The problem lies partly with the moving pole and partly with other shifts deep within the planet. Liquid churning in Earth’s core generates most of the magnetic field, which varies over time as the deep flows change.

In early 2018 researchers from NOAA and the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh had been doing their annual check of how well the model was capturing all the variations in Earth’s magnetic field. They realized that it was so inaccurate that it was about to exceed the acceptable limit for navigational errors.

In 2018 the pole crossed the International Date Line into the Eastern Hemisphere. It is currently heading for Siberia.

Scientists are working to understand why the magnetic field is changing so dramatically. Phil Livermore, a geomagnetist at the University of Leeds in the UK said at the American Geophysical Union meeting that the location of the north magnetic pole appears to be governed by two large-scale patches of magnetic field, one beneath Canada and one beneath Siberia. “The Siberian patch is winning the competition.”

WATCH:  Something Strange is Happening to Earth’s Magnetic North Pole

Polarity flips every few hundred thousand years

The magnetic field is in a permanent state of flux

Magnetic north wanders, and every few hundred thousand years the polarity flips so that a compass would point south instead of north.

Scientists in recent years have predicted that Earth’s magnetic field could be gearing up to ‘flip’ – a shift in which the magnetic south pole would become magnetic north, and vice versa.

Such an event could have catastrophic effects, wreaking havoc on the electric grid and leaving life at the surface exposed to higher amounts of solar radiation.

While it’s previously been thought that these reversals take place at intervals of hundreds of thousands of years, one recent study suggests it could happen in just a matter of centuries.

  AUTHOR
Amanda Coetzee
Digital Content Creator

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