22nd February 2019

The North Pole is shifting towards Siberia

Wasim Askar analyses the potential causes and impacts of the Earth’s drifting magnetic North Pole.
The North Pole is shifting towards Siberia
Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight @ Flickr

The Earth’s North Pole is moving at a speed of at least 55 km per year away from Canada and towards Siberia, raising concerns that it could cause errors in map applications and geolocation services.

“The location of the north magnetic pole appears to be governed by two large-scale patches of magnetic field, one beneath Canada and one beneath Siberia,” Phil Livermore, a geo-magnetist at the University of Leeds, says. “The Siberian patch is winning the competition.” Compass needles point towards the north magnetic pole, which is moving towards Siberia.

The World Magnetic Model predicts the Earth’s magnetic field every five years and it was last done in 2015. The model is created by the British Geological  Survey and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It is a model that images the Earth’s core. The core field is generated by dynamic action in the iron-rich core and its pace of shift has increased over the years. The outer core of the Earth gets affected due to various factors, according to British Geological Survey blogger Will Brown, such as the drifting of the magnetic poles and changing fields. The shift could also be due to the immense magnetic field of the sun carried by wind which changes the field in the outer core. The change in the flow of iron in the Earth’s outer core leads to changes in its magnetic field.  Finally, it could also be due to the flipping of poles, where north becomes south and vice versa, a phenomenon that happens once every 200,000 to 300,000 years.

Why is this significant to us? The positions of the Earth’s poles and models of its magnetic field is used by organisations such as NATO and the Ministry of Defense for missile systems and geolocation systems. More importantly, it could also affect location data that smartphone operating systems use, such as Android and IOS, and games like Pokemon Go.

Existing software will have to be modified to catch up with the change. Smartphones use the World Magnetic Model for the apps that use maps. Your phone contains a device known as a ‘magnometer’ that measures the Earth’s magnetic field. For analysing the information collected by your phone’s magnometer, the World Magnetic Model needs to be used so you have the location of a ‘true north.’

However, the error will not be off by more than a few per cent. Geodetic scientist James Friederich from the US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency explained that GPS systems only can detect the position and the direction you are facing. However, the switching of poles could cause increased exposure to radiation leading to an increased impact of global warming due to weakening fields. Professor Roberts from the Australian National University School of Research said that even with the existing strong magnetic field, we are susceptible to solar storms, and scientists have observed that reversal of poles in the past has led to a reduction of magnetic field strength by 90 percent.

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