Earth's Magnetic North Pole Is Moving Faster Than Ever

The location of the Magnetic North Pole has been updated early due to its rapid movement.
Jessica Miley

Magnetic North is on the move, and it has implications for everything from navigation to consumer products. Scientists this week have updated the location of magnetic north a year ahead of schedule.

Magnetic North is always moving, but recently the movement has significantly increased in pace, although scientists don’t really know why.

Scientists were in the middle of arranging an emergency location update for its location when the US government shutdown put the announcement on hold. The update has finally been confirmed this week. 

What is the Magnetic North Pole?

Magnetic North is one of three ‘north poles.’ True north is probably the most well known and is the northern end of planet Earth axis. Geomagnetic north is the northernmost end of the earth's magnetic bubble or magnetosphere. 

This spot sits off the northwest coast of Greenland and has moved only slightly over the last century. Finally magnetic north is what your compass locates. 

This pole is defined as the point at which magnetic field lines point vertically down. This spot is affected by the flows of-of liquid iron in Earth's core and hence is susceptible to movement. 

How do scientists track it?

To track the Magnetic North Pole the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the British Geological Survey developed the World Magnetic Model so that scientists around the world could all relate to the same resource.  

The model is updated every five years with the last update occurring in 2015. In the five years between public updates, magnetic observations from the European Space Agency's Swarm mission are studied to track the movement of the poles. 

The swarm mission involves the magnetic-field mapping satellites that zip around Earth 15 to 16 times each day. Until now, this five year period was enough to keep track of the pole as it slowly moved toward Siberia. 

In the 1900s magnetic north moved less than a hundred feet per day, but in the 1990s this started to increase. By the early 2000s magnetic north was moving at a pace of 34 miles per day.

In early 2018, scientists in charge of the model update realized they needed to have an earlier update in order to keep within the acceptable limits for magnetic-based navigation.

Emergency update needed

The next updates weren’t due until 2020, but the movement of the poles had increased so much, the difference between the last update and the next was too great. 

The updated model was released in October 2018, but the US government shutdown meant that some critical details were left off. 

These have now been completed including online calculators, software, and a technical note describing the changes. The latest update was done using data from the last three years. The update doesn’t have much consequence for civilian users of magnetic navigation but is critical to military users.