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Magnetic north is changing faster than forecast

Lewis Sanders IV
January 11, 2019

Scientists were set to release a new World Magnetic Model after accelerating changes in earth's magnetic field, but the US government shutdown has stopped them for now. Navigation as we know it could be in jeopardy.

Compass pointing to magnetic north
Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot

Scientists had planned to roll out a new update of the World Magnetic Model (WMM) on January 15 due to increased fluctuations in earth's magnetic field. However, due to the U.S. government shutdown, this has been delayed.

Although the magnetic north pole — unlike the geographic North Pole — is constantly in motion, the magnetic field is changing faster than scientists had previously forecast, according to a report published by scientific journal Nature this week.

The World Magnetic Model is updated every five years to account for shifts to the field and the last one took place in 2015. However, in 2016, part of the magnetic field "temporarily accelerated deep under northern South America and the eastern Pacific Ocean," according to Nature.

By 2018, scientists at US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the British Geological Survey realized they needed to release an updated WMM because it had become "so inaccurate that it was about to exceed the acceptable limit for navigational errors."

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

Due to the US government shutdown, scientists have been unable to release the updated WMM. Instead, they have pushed back the date to January 30, hoping that the government will be running by then. But it's unclear if that will be the case.

Read more: Arctic's record warming propelling 'broad change' in climate: study

Infographic showing changes in magnetic north since 1900

'Your orientation'

While location can be tracked using GPS technology, WMM provides orientation for aircraft, naval vessels and even smartphones. "Your orientation, the direction you are facing, comes from the magnetic field," said James Friederich, a scientist at the US National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency, in 2014 ahead of the last WMM update.

"Our war fighters use magnetics to orient their maps. Your smartphone camera and various apps can use the magnetic field to help determine the direction you are facing. All of these examples need the WMM to provide your proper orientation."

But scientists are still in the dark concerning the acceleration of changes in the magnetic field. The shifts are fueled by changes in currents — like those of the ocean — of molten iron in the earth's core. But why they're accelerating now remains a mystery.

Read more: Greenland ice sheet melting at 'exceptional' rate

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