Earth is protected from various sources of radiation from outer space by the planet’s magnetic field. It is powered by the outer core, a thick layer of molten iron and nickel that spins around the solid inner core and that powered our magnetic field for billions of years. The field includes the north and south pole, and these aren’t located at the same spot as geographic north and south pole. Instead, magnetic poles are in constant motion but they tend to stay near geographic poles. And while the south magnetic pole is moving but at a steady pace, north pole accelerated in the last couple of decades and is now moving so fast that the whole World Magnetic Model, which is incredibly important for the global navigation and communication systems.
Image Source: Nature.com
The World Magnetic Model is updated every five years but the magnetic north is in such a hurry the model had to be updated one year before the official update was due. For hundreds of years the north pole moved at a relatively steady pace but since the end of 80’s it gotten faster and faster. And while it usually moved back and forth, around its usual location in northern Canada for hundreds of years, the pole started to move north in the last 50 or so years. And now it is traveling at a pace of about 34 miles, across the Arctic and towards Russia. It could end up somewhere in Siberia and this rapid movement can hurt navigation in Arctic regions. This is why the World Magnetic Model was updated a year before planned.
The thing is, while the GPS system isn’t really affected by this noticeable movement of the magnetic north (when it comes to GPS data from satellites plays a much bigger part than compass data) auxiliary navigation systems used when GPS isn’t available and all navigation based on compass readings were in danger of becoming useless because the World Magnetic Model started to show too large errors to be useful. So, instead of updating it in 2020 (the model is updated every five years), it had to be updated of course. Luckily, errors caused by the movement of the magnetic north were noticeable only at latitudes above 55 degrees. In other words, most of us weren’t affected by the rapid pole movements but those traveling around the Arctic (like many passenger jets, for instance) simply needed an updated model in order for their navigation instruments to work as intended.
Image Source: Forbes.com
And while the WMM is updated the magnetic north is still moving, and no one knows the exact reason for such rapid acceleration that happened during the last couple of decades. One explanation says that the formation of a fast and narrow stream of liquid metal just below the magnetic north caught the pole and is moving it to Siberia. On the other side, the magnetic south doesn’t move because the core is moving differently in the south. At the same time, our magnetic field is growing weaker at a steady pace, hinting that it could start reversing soon. That isn’t anything new; the Earth’s magnetic field is on the constant move and during the last 20 million years the poles have filled every 200,000 to 300,000 years. But the fact is that the last magnetic pole reversal happened almost 800,000 years ago, meaning that a flip is long overdue.
Luckily, this flip shouldn’t affect our civilization much and you shouldn’t be worried about it. It will happen over the course of more than 1,000 years meaning that our scientists will have plenty of time to adjust navigation instruments to work with new locations of magnetic poles. What is certain though is that if this rapid movement of the north magnetic pole continues we will have to update the WMM more frequently than every five years.