Magnetic North Pole —
The earth’s magnetic North Pole is moving so fast that it’s affecting GPS systems in the far north. But updates for GPS systems will have to wait until the US government shutdown is over.
Deep inside the Earth is a giant ball of super hot liquid iron. The way this iron moves as the Earth spins creates a giant magnet inside the Earth. Like all magnets, the Earth’s magnet has two ends, called “poles” (North and South).
Opposite poles of magnets pull toward each other and the same poles push away. That’s why a compass points North. The magnetic needle spins until its poles line up with the Earth’s magnetic poles.
But the Earth’s magnetic North Pole is not in the same place as the true, or “geographic” North Pole. To understand the “geographic” poles, imagine the Earth spinning, like a globe, around a long, thin stick. The geographic North and South poles would be where the stick pokes out of the Earth.
The magnetic poles are close to the geographic poles, but they’re not in the same exact places. The magnetic poles actually move around as the Earth’s liquid iron outer core moves and changes. The magnetic poles not only move around, they have even flipped a few times (about every 500 million years or so), so that the North Pole became the South Pole.
To keep track of the movement of the magnetic poles, scientists have created a “magnetic model” – a prediction of how the poles will move over time. The model usually predicts well enough so that it is safe for GPS systems to use it to guide planes, ships, and other things.
By combining the magnetic North Pole, the magnetic model, and information from satellites, GPS systems can figure out where something is on Earth.
Scientists update the magnetic model every five years. That’s normally often enough, even though the North Pole has been moving much more quickly since the 1980s. The North Pole is being pulled away from northern Canada toward Russia by about 31 miles (50 kilometers) per year.
But the North Pole has started moving even more quickly than expected. The model was updated in 2015 and was supposed to last until 2020. Now the North Pole has moved so much that GPS can’t be safely used for steering in the far North.
Scientists at the US group NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) are in charge of the magnetic model. They have been working with scientists from the UK on a special update to the model to make GPS safe again.
NOAA scientists planned to put the new model on the Internet on January 15. But when the US government was shut down, NOAA was also shut down. That means no new model.
The GPS problems don’t affect most people, but they do affect ships, planes, or anything else traveling near the North Pole. NOAA scientists now hope to put out the new model on January 30, but that will depend on politics.