‘Follow That Pole!’ The World’s Magnetic North Continues to Wander

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[Photo via Pixabay]
For much of North America, it was unnecessary to travel to the country’s polar region to experience Arctic weather, as snowstorms and extreme cold affected much of both Canada and the United States this week. In fact, Canada’s capital, Ottawa received the dubious distinction of being the world’s coldest capital city, beating out the usual suspects Moscow and Ulan Bator.

However, Canada also made Arctic news of sorts for a different reason this week, when it was reported that the North Magnetic Pole, which used to be situated in the Canadian Arctic until 2017 when the location veered towards the central Arctic Ocean towards Siberia, had recently shifted position much faster than expected. The news prompted requests by American authorities to the authorities which oversee the pole’s location, namely the British Geological Survey and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to submit updates to the World Magnetic Model (WMM), normally due in 2020, this month instead.

The North Magnetic Pole is the moving point in the Northern Hemisphere where Earth’s magnetic field points vertically downwards. The exact location of this pole (separate from the fixed geographic North Pole at 90ºN), changes over time due to conditions within the planet’s core, specifically the movement of liquid iron. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the North Magnetic Pole has moved from Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, (in what is now Nunavut), to the central Arctic Ocean in the direction of the Siberian Coast.

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Historical movement of the North Magnetic Pole [Map via Wikipedia]
The pole, (which at the time was situated on the Boothia Peninsula), was originally isolated in 1831 by British explorer James Clark Ross, was discovered by John Ross, James’ uncle and an officer with the British Royal Navy. Famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, during his exploration of the Northwest Passage, took measurements in 1904 which suggested that the pole was indeed moving. Last year, the pole crossed the International Date Line and entered the Eastern Hemisphere on its way to the northern Russian coast.

What has caught many scientists’ interest however has been the acceleration of the pole’s movements since the early 1990s, from approximately fifteen kilometres per year at that time to approximately 55km now. Various rationales have been advanced to explain this recent activity, including interactions between two sections of magnetic field between Canada and Siberia, as well as a magnetic pulse beneath South America which occurred in 2016. Another contributing factor, according to a 2017 article [pdf], may be a jet of fast-moving molten iron beneath Canada.

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Aurora borealis as viewed from the International Space Station (ISS) [Photo by NASA]
Requirements for updated measurements of the location (and speed and trajectory) of the North Magnetic Pole are imperative for its use its use in navigation systems for aircraft and ships, (as well in smartphones). It was originally hoped the revised model would be released last week. However, the month-long US government shutdown, which has also closed down the operations of the NOAA, forced a delay in the model’s official updating until at least the end of January, and possibly longer, given the current lack of progress on a deal to reopen the government.

Once the model is finally released, it would be expected to predict the movement of the North Magnetic Pole for the next five years, but given the surprising travels of said pole thus far, further study may be needed sooner rather than later.

Update: With the American government back in operation (for now), the NOAA released new information on 4 February on the Magnetic Pole’s location and trajectory.