Earth’s North Magnetic Pole moving east faster — NBC4’s Ben Gelber explains what that means

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Hearing the news that the North Magnetic Pole is moving relatively rapidly eastward toward Russia sounds a bit alarming. But is that a real concern south of the Arctic Circle?

The term “polar wander” accounts for the constant gradual movement of Earth’s magnetic poles in relation to the planet’s axis of rotation.

This is different from the North Pole we study about in geography class, which resides beneath the Arctic Ocean at 90 degrees north, mostly in a fixed position, and currently 4 degrees north of the North Magnetic Pole.

The earth does wobble a bit on its spin axis, causing the geographic North and South Poles drift slightly, which scientists think is correlated to melting ice sheets and glaciers. which shift the balance of mass.

But the quickening pace of the normally wandering north magnetic pole has caught the attention of NOAA and academic researchers.

“Over the last 100 years or so, it has migrated from northern Canada towards Siberia,” said Wendy Panero, an Ohio State University professor in the School of Earth Sciences.

This has raised concerns, because navigation systems used in aviation and to locate your iPhone rely on magnetic compasses. The magnetic heading of airport runways that appears in big white numbers has to be redone as the magnetic field moves.

Scientists and mathematicians have known about the erratic motion of the north magnetic pole for hundreds of years, but the recent accelerating drift — about 30-35 miles per year since 2000 — has been the subject of intensive study, with the help of satellites and surface-based data.

Earth’s magnetic field is created by wavy motions that give rise to convection currents — rising and sinking liquid iron — in the fluid outer core of Earth, a 1,500-mile layer between the surface and a solid inner core beneath Earth’s mantle.

The other issue is the protective role of the magnetic field from strong solar radiation, when the geomagnetic poles switch positions during a period of several thousand years.

Earth’s magnetic field has undergone a reversal every 200,000  to 300,000 years throughout most of the past 20 million years. However, the last occurrence was around 780,000 years ago. 

A weaker magnetic field triggered by a field reversal results in an uptick in cosmic background microwave radiation reaching Earth, with potentially harmful effects to life on Earth, not to mention modern power grids.

Ohio State University scientist, Lonnie Thompson, at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, said, “If we have the collapse of Earth’s magnetic field, we would have intense cosmic radiation for a short period of time. It is kind of our shield to all those intense cosmic rays coming in.”

NOAA researchers just finished updating mapping of the North Magnetic Pole, which is incorporated into smartphones and navigation systems, taking into account the recent eastward acceleration in the past few years.

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