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The geomagnetic field, simply known as the Earth’s magnetic field, is one that extends from Earth to space, and its magnitude has been estimated to be between 25 and 85 microteslas (i.e., 0.25 to 0.65 gauss). The North Pole is in the Northern Hemisphere while the South Pole lies on the opposite side in the Southern Hemisphere, and it is between these poles that a magnetic field, by electric currents, is generated.

Recently, it was observed that the Earth’s north magnetic pole had been exhibiting strange behavior and quickly moving away from Canada, even crossing the International Date Line last year. As of now, this pole has been redefined by the World Magnetic Model because of its rapid movement. This extreme wandering has caused increasing concerns over navigation, especially at high latitudes.

Why could this phenomenon be occurring? Researchers have suggested that it may be because of the deeply embedded hydromagnetic waves, the movement of liquid iron in the Earth’s core, climate change, or a combination of all these factors.

The Wandering North Pole

In the 1800s, it was established that the magnetic north tends to waver, but the following century confirmed the rate at which it was doing so was ‘fast,’ i.e., from 9 miles (15 km) to about 35 miles (56 km), every year. These findings were reported in the journal, Nature.

In 2015, the World Magnetic Model was updated, after which, in 2016, the planners did not expect the magnetic field to change again. Typically, the Model is updated every five years, but the quick movement prompted authorities to upgrade the data earlier. Finally, as of 2018, the magnetic crossed over to the Eastern Hemisphere by skipping past the International Date Line as well.

On Monday, Feb 5, 2019, the Magnetic Model was, again, officially updated and the location of the Earth’s north pole was changed. It is estimated that this wandering point is moving away from the Canadian Arctic and towards Russia. Therefore, the magnetic declination, or the difference between the magnetic north and the true north, is said to be changing with time.

Does this mean that the North Pole may flip? Experts believe that this reversal may not happen in the near future, as there is currently no evidence of its imminent occurrence.

On the other hand, by examining certain minerals present in rocks on Earth, geologists can make predictions about magnetic reversals and its evolution in history.

This is not to say that the Earth’s poles haven’t flipped in the past. From fossil records, it was known that about 700,000 years ago, and 183 times in the last 83 million years, this has indeed been the case. But, as some researchers imagine, the potential event will not be the “end of the world,” as is commonly believed by some.

Animation tracing the movement of the Earth’s magnetic north pole. (Source: NOAA)

Animation tracing the movement of the Earth’s magnetic north pole. (Source: NOAA)

In a blogpost, the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) said, “The slowly moving plates act as a kind of tape recorder leaving information about the strength and direction of past magnetic fields. By sampling these rocks and using radiometric dating techniques, it has been possible to reconstruct the history of the Earth's magnetic field for roughly the last 160 million years. If one ‘plays the tape backwards,’ the record shows Earth’s magnetic field strengthening, weakening, and often changing polarity.”

Who Does This Change Affect?

Government agencies, such as NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), depend on the accuracy of the magnetic poles in their everyday operations. The location of the poles, especially the magnetic north, is also important for individuals using GPS systems and compasses on their smartphones. In addition, several technological inventions in the field of communications also rely on Earth’s magnetic poles.

While the shift of the magnetic north and the possible reversal of the poles may sound cataclysmic, experts assure there is no reason to worry as it might be some time (read: a few hundred years) before this phenomenon could really affect life on Earth!

Top Image: The Earth’s magnetic field. (Source: Flickr)

References

  1. Finlay, C. C. et al. (2010), International Geomagnetic Reference Field: the eleventh generation,’ Geophysical Journal International, 183 (3), Pp 1216-1230
  2. Earth's Magnetic Pole Is Wandering, Lurching Toward Siberia, 2019, LiveScience, https://www.livescience.com/64486-earth-magnetic-pole-moving.html, (accessed Feb 10, 2019)
  3. Earth’s Magnetic Field Is Behaving Erratically, Baffling Scientists, 2019, Futurism, https://futurism.com/the-byte/earths-north-pole-is-moving-in-a-way-thats-baffling-scientists, (accessed Feb 10, 2019)
  4. Earth’s magnetic field is acting up and geologists don’t know why, 2019, Nature, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00007-1, (accessed Feb 11, 2019)
  5. Earth's Magnetic North Pole May Have Just Officially Shifted, 2019, IFLScience!https://www.iflscience.com/environment/earths-magnetic-north-pole-may-have-just-officially-shifted/, (accessed Feb 11, 2019)
  6. Earth's Magnetic North Pole Has Officially Moved, 2019, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2019/02/05/earths-magnetic-north-pole-has-officially-moved/#2801a88e6862, (accessed Feb 12, 2019)
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Meghna Rao, MSc

A postgraduate in Bioscience with work experience in research and communications in the healthcare, medical and scientific domains; areas of specialization include scientific content creation, medical editing, blogging in science and biotechnology, with a fair knowledge in grant writing and scientific journalism. Also, she is passionate about travel blogging, practicing yoga, volunteering in non-profits for education. Read More

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