Magnetic north is one of three “north poles” on our planet.
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Photo by NASA/JSC

What do you think of when you hear about the North Pole? For most of us, images of Santa Claus, reindeer and the greatest toy workshop ever all spring to mind.

There is actually a lot more to the term than most of us realize. True north, or the geographic north pole, is the northern end of the AXIS on which Earth turns and the rumored home of Santa and his elves. The magnetic north pole is different than true north—and this is the pole that’s been making headlines lately.

Magnetic north is what your compass locates and it’s defined as the point at which magnetic field lines point vertically downwards. Magnetic north has always been on the move, so scientists and experts created the World Magnetic Model. This model is the mathematical system that establishes the basis for modern navigation on everything from ships and planes to Google Maps.

Fact Box:

• Magnetic north is one of three “north poles” on our planet

• The World Magnetic Model is typically updated every five years

• The most recent update was released in February

• Rocks hold geologic maps of past magnetic pole movements

Every five years, scientists and experts produce an update for the World Magnetic Model. The last routine update was done in 2015. In recent years, magnetic north has picked up its pace of change. The changes have happened so quickly that scientists released an emergency update of the model in February.

So why is magnetic north changing so rapidly? Scientists know that magnetic north is affected by the surges and flows in the swirl of liquid iron in Earth’s core, some 1,800 miles beneath our planet’s surface. However, scientists have theories about why the shift has sped up in recent years but haven’t determined the specific reason.  While the World Magnetic Model affects many mapping systems, most of us won’t notice much of a difference. Rocks provide a geologic map of the movements of the magnetic poles and suggest that there have previously been significant changes to magnetic north. One thing experts know for sure: the only thing predictable about magnetic north is how unpredictable it can be.

March 2019