Stories

The magnetic north pole is migrating rapidly toward Siberia

A Boeing 777 of Emirates Airlines pictured flying at high altitude.
An Emirates Airlines Boeing 777 pictured flying at high altitude. Photo: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Earth's magnetic north pole is on the move, and while scientists aren't exactly sure what's behind the migration, they have taken the unprecedented step of issuing an unplanned update to the World Magnetic Model.

Why it matters: The World Magnetic Model, which is issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), exists to help undersea and aircraft navigation, among other uses. It's normally updated every 5 years, and the last one was published in 2015. The next wasn't planned until the end of this year.

According to NOAA, smartphone companies also use the model for providing compass apps, maps and GPS services. Safely navigating jetliners over the North Pole can get particularly tricky based on even small shifts in the magnetic field, and such cross-polar routes are proliferating between the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Details: The magnetic north pole has been moving away from the Canadian Arctic and toward Siberia at an increasing pace.

  • According to Seth Borenstein of the AP, the magnetic north pole has been moving at about 34 miles a year. This is an increase in speed of about 9 miles per year since 2000.
  • The reason for the movement likely has to do with changes in the Earth's liquid outer core, Borenstein wrote, where the motion of certain metals, such as iron and nickel, creates an electric field.

"It has changes akin to weather," University of Maryland geophysicist Daniel Lathrop told the AP. "We might just call it magnetic weather."

The newly issued model may force some airports to rename their runways, since runway designations refer to their heading in relation to magnetic north. This can be costly, since it requires repainting runways, updating signs and altering aviation charts.

Why you'll hear about this again: Eventually, the magnetic poles are expected to reverse themselves, as they have done in the past. This is expected to be preceded by a significant weakening of the Earth's magnetic field. It won't happen overnight, but rather during the course of about 1,000 years.

A pole reversal could hamper the ability of some birds and other creatures that use the magnetic field to navigate.

Go deeper: Check your compass: The magnetic North Pole is on the move (AP)