North magnetic pole fast moving towards Siberia, forcing navigation fix

Northern Lights near the village of Mestervik, Norway
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The Earth’s northern magnetic pole is on the move, scientists say, drifting from the Canadian Arctic towards Siberia. The change is happening so fast that it has forced researchers to make an unprecedented early update to a model that helps navigation by ships, planes and submarines in the Arctic.

While the geographic north pole is fixed, the magnetic north pole — the north that your compass points toward - is not.

The update released on Monday says the magnetic north pole is moving about 34 miles (55 kilometres) a year. “It didn’t move much between 1900 and 1980 but it’s really accelerated in the past 40 years,” said Ciaran Beggan, of the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.

Location of the north magnetic pole (white star) at the beginning of 2019Courtesy of NOAA NCEI/CIRES

The wandering pole is driven by unpredictable changes in liquid iron deep inside the Earth.

Beggan said the recent shifts in the north magnetic pole would be unnoticed by most people outside the Arctic, for instance those people 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.”

Yet for the military sector, the World Magnetic Model is of strategic importance - unlike satellites, it cannot be hacked by foreign powers. It should then come as no surprise that the early review released this week was requested by the US Military.

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