Shifting North Magnetic Pole Forces Rare Navigation Fix

January 11, 2019 Updated: February 4, 2019

OSLO, Norway—Rapid shifts in the Earth’s north magnetic pole are forcing researchers to make an unprecedented early update to a model that helps navigation by ships, planes, and submarines in the Arctic, scientists said.

Compass needles point towards the north magnetic pole, a point that has crept unpredictably from the coast of northern Canada a century ago to the middle of the Arctic Ocean, moving towards Russia.

“It’s moving at about 30 miles a year. It didn’t move much between 1900 and 1980 but it’s really accelerated in the past 40 years,” Ciaran Beggan, of the British Geological Survey (BGS) in Edinburgh, Scotland, told Reuters.

A five-year update of a World Magnetic Model was due in 2020, but the U.S. military requested an unprecedented early review, he said. The BGS runs the model with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Beggan said the moving pole affected navigation, mainly in the Arctic Ocean north of Canada. NATO and the United States and British militaries are among those using the magnetic model, as well as civilian navigation.

The wandering pole is driven by unpredictable changes in liquid iron deep inside the Earth, scientists believe. An update will be released on Jan. 30, the journal Nature said, delayed from Jan. 15 because of the U.S. government shutdown.

“The fact that the pole is going fast makes this region more prone to large errors,” Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, told Nature.

Beggan said the recent shifts in the north magnetic pole would be unnoticed by most people outside the Arctic, for instance, using smartphones in New York, Beijing, or London.

Navigation systems in cars or phones rely on radio waves from satellites high above the Earth to pinpoint their position on the ground.

“It doesn’t really affect mid- or low latitudes,” Beggan said. “It wouldn’t really affect anyone driving a car.”

Many smartphones have inbuilt compasses, but in most places, the compass would be pointing only fractionally wrong, Beggan said.

By Alister Doyle