DEC 24, 2019 8:40 AM PST

Santa's not the Only One that's Making Haste - the Magnetic North Pole's Wandering Accelerates

WRITTEN BY: Daniel Duan

Model of Earth's Geodynamo (US DoE/Wikimedia Common)

According to the latest World Magnetic Model (WMM) released by the National Centres for Environmental Information (NCEI), the Earth's magnetic north pole is picking up the pace during its move from the Canadian arctics towards Siberia.

Co-developed by the NCEI, the British Geological Survey, and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), the WMM has been providing the world with the most accurate mapping of the planet’s magnetic field.

Heavily relying on their compasses, devices such as smartphones and other handheld devices, as well as the GPS systems on vehicles, airplanes, and marine vessels, would be crippled without a standard navigation tool like the WMM.

To differentiate the two similar concepts, the geographic north pole is the point where the Earth's rotation axis meets its surface (which remains by and large at the same spot for a long time), whereas the north magnetic pole is a wandering point where our planet's magnetic field points vertically downwards.

Earth's magnetic field is the product of the electric currents in Earth's outer core, which in term are caused by heat escaping from the inner core in the form of molten iron flow (a constant process known as a geodynamo).

Within the last 20 million years, Earth reversed its magnetic poles once every 200,000 to 300,000 years, but the last time when two magnetic poles traded their places was approximately 780,000 years ago. Scientists suspected the next full reversal is on the horizon, and the acceleration of the pole movement could be a sign.

Based on the measurements for the past few centuries, the drift of the magnetic north pole in the past three decades is fastest historically, at an average speed of 55 kilometres (34 miles) per year.

Is Earth's Magnetic Field Reversing? (PBS Space Time)

So, what happen to the planet during the magnetic pole switch, which could take decades or even century to complete?

Earth's magnetic field protects us from harmful radiation from space and our Sun. When the poles switch, scientists fear that this protective shield would become so weak that all life forms would take massive damage from leathal radiation.

In a better scenario, where our health and ecosystem are more or less intact, the weakening of the field will still damage near earth spacecrafts, satellites, and other essential parts of our modern society. Historically, even under the protection of Earth's magnetic field, the powerful solar storms had managed to knock out power grids and telecommunication networks.

Rather than fearing what's going to happen, scientists say that we need to acknowledge the pole reversal is going to happen and the best we can do is to prepare for it - finding ways to protect our health, environment, and infrastrucutres.

Source: Science Alert

About the Author
  • Graduated with a bachelor degree in Pharmaceutical Science and a master degree in neuropharmacology, Daniel is a radiopharmaceutical and radiobiology expert based in Ottawa, Canada. With years of experience in biomedical R&D, Daniel is very into writing. He is constantly fascinated by what's happening in the world of science. He hopes to capture the public's interest and promote scientific literacy with his trending news articles. The recurring topics in his Chemistry & Physics trending news section include alternative energy, material science, theoretical physics, medical imaging, and green chemistry.
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