JAN 19, 2018 07:17 AM PST

Shifting Magnetic Poles Mean Runway Renovations

WRITTEN BY: Julia Travers

Earth’s magnetic or geomagnetic field is understood to emanate from conductive materials in the core of the planet. It is called a dipole field because it has two poles where the field is strongest at either end -- the magnetic North and South Poles. Unlike the geographic poles, which are fixed, the magnetic North and South Poles move up to 40 miles annually. The magnetic North Pole appears to be migrating from Canada to Russia. As these poles move, our compass readings do as well, and this can lead to major renovation projects at many of the world’s airports.

Runway painting, credit: Julio McGraw

The majority of runways currently in use are given names that reflect how many degrees clockwise off of north they are. As the magnetic north shifts a certain amount, so must the runways names. Wired gives this example: at Kansas’ Wichita Eisenhower National Airport, there is a runway named “14/32.” It can be used in either direction, so is actually two runways: 14 and 32. Pilots actually refer to them as “one-four” and “three-two.” The 14 or “one-four” end is approximately 140 degrees off of north. The last digit is dropped, and runway names are generally rounded to the nearest 5 degrees. Some parallel pairs of runways are also given L and R designations for left and right (west and east), like “1L/19R” airport runway, credit: http://blog.elevatingtheupstate.comand “1R/19L.”

Until the compass reading changes enough to shift a runway’s rounded heading into another 5-degree range, it is considered accurate enough to keep its name. The 14/32 runway is about to be changed to 15/33. This means that the giant numbers on the ground have to be repainted. Air traffic controllers and pilots have to become acquainted with new manuals and approach plates (charts of instrument approach procedures).

A few airports typically have to update these procedures annually. While pilots expect some variance in headline names and readings, its important to stay on top of the system, Commercial Pilot and Aviation Consultant Doug Moss conveys. Pilots may use the runway names to check the accuracy of their own indicators, which means faulty labels can create safety hazards. A 2006 crash with 49 fatalities was found to be due to a crew not correctly confirming the correct runway location and taking off from the wrong one. So, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) takes the runway naming procedure seriously.

Also, our planet’s magnetic poles completely reverse about every 200,000 to 300,000 years. We are long overdue – the last major reversal, called the Brunhes-Matuyama reversal, was about 780,000 years ago. Because cooling lava on the ocean floor records its changing magnetization over time, scientists can use it to study how these reversals affect the planet. While some associate a magnetic reversal with a doomsday-type scenario, “The fossil record shows no drastic changes in plant or animal life,” NASA explains.

About the Author
  • Julia Travers is a writer, artist and teacher. She frequently covers science, tech and conservation.
You May Also Like
SEP 25, 2018
Cell & Molecular Biology
SEP 25, 2018
Creating Circuits to Detect and React to Conditions in Live Cells
Researchers at Caltech have taken an interesting approach to synthetic biology....
SEP 30, 2018
Technology
SEP 30, 2018
Enhancing CCTV Images
Utilizing computer-enhanced composite to combine multiple poor quality CCTV images as one, could improve the accuracy of facial recognition systems in the...
NOV 07, 2018
Space & Astronomy
NOV 07, 2018
Near-Twin of New Horizons' Ralph Instrument to Study Jupiter's Trojan Asteroids
If you followed along when NASA’s New Horizons probe flew past Pluto in July 2015, then you probably remember all the stunning photographs taken of t...
NOV 18, 2018
Space & Astronomy
NOV 18, 2018
All About NASA's Plan to Drill Deeper Into Mars Than Ever Before
When NASA’s InSight lander arrives at Mars, it will land near the planet’s equator at Elysium Planitia. This location is flat, which is ideal f...
DEC 04, 2018
Space & Astronomy
DEC 04, 2018
Learn How NASA's Apollo 12 Mission Escaped Double Lightning Strikes
When NASA’s Apollo 12 mission was preparing to launch on November 14th, 1969, ominous storm clouds began swarming the launch pad. Regardless, weather...
DEC 08, 2018
Videos
DEC 08, 2018
Repairing Broken Bones With 3D-Printed Scaffolds
Titanium implants and bone grafts can be painful. Researchers are creating a better way to fix damaged bones....
Loading Comments...