I have been seeing some headlines pointing out that Earth’s magnetic field is acting up and that scientists don’t understand why, so I thought I would take the time to clear up the issue.
What is happening?
Earth’s magnetic pole is moving in the direction of Siberia and away from Canada. This is something that scientists have been tracking for a long time. It’s fairly easy to look up the location of the magnetic pole dating back to the early 1900s. The recent changes of the drifting pole are raising some concerns but the direction is not the problem. In fact, the direction of the drifting pole has been roughly the same for as long as scientists have been tracking it. The speed is the issue.
Every five years scientists recalculate the location of the magnetic pole. This is important information for global navigation, which includes GPS satellites and other technology. These changes can make a big difference in our everyday lives.
Scientists at NOAA and the British Geological Survey check how accurate the World Magnetic Model is every year and when they did their check this year they noticed some large differences. Primarily that the pole’s movement had sped up. The location data for the pole was supposed to last until 2020 before it needed to be updated but according to experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it needs to be updated now.
The movement of Earth's magnetic field since its discovery
Why is this happening?
The movement of the pole is caused by flows of molten liquid iron in the Earth’s core. This liquid and how it moves creates the Earth’s magnetic field. Variations in the liquid flow cause the magnetic field to change over time and cause the location of magnetic north to move.
The global model was off because of a geomagnetic pulse the occurred beneath South America in 2016. This pulse just came at a bad time. The 2015 World Magnetic Model was brand new and not scheduled to be renewed until 2020. It seems that in the future we may not be able to wait as long between updates. The poles movement has sped up in recent memory from 9 miles a year in the 1990s to about 34 miles a year at present day. A new model needs to be implemented as soon as possible and even then they will have to rework the model again in 2020. Until then navigation might be affected.
What caused the geomagnetic pulse beneath South America is unknown. If you have been seeing headlines that imply the scientists are clueless or don’t understand what is happening this is what they are talking about. Anomalies like this happen from time to time and honestly, it’s nothing to be worried about.
Why is the pole moving?
In the northern hemisphere, deep within the Earth, there are two large areas of magnetic strength being generated by the liquid metal surrounding Earth’s core. One is under Canada and the other is under Siberia. What we are seeing now is the result of those two areas pulling against each other.
It’s also worth noting that the release of the new model is being delayed due to the US government shutdown. If you would like to know more about this issue please write your Senator and ask them to reopen the government.