The magnetic north pole is moving, causing navigation issues

In recent decades, the Earth's magnetic north pole has drifted rapidly from Canada's coast toward Russia, causing navigation issues. That has prompted the U.S. military to ask scientists to compensate for its changing position.

U.S. military requests update to World Magnetic Model to help navigation

Polar Star, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, completes ice drills in the Arctic in a 2013 photo. The U.S. military has requested an unprecedented early review of the scientific model used for compass navigation because of the rapid drift of the Earth's magnetic north pole in recent decades. (Petty Officer 3rd Class Rachel French/U.S. Coast Guard/Reuters)

Rapid shifts in the Earth's north magnetic pole are forcing researchers to make an unprecedented early update to a model that helps navigation by ships, planes and submarines in the Arctic, scientists said.

Compass needles point toward the north magnetic pole — a point which has crept unpredictably from the coast of northern Canada a century ago, to the middle of the Arctic Ocean, moving toward Russia.

It didn't move much between 1900 and 1980 but it's really accelerated in the past 40 years.- Ciaran Beggan, British Geological Survey

"It's moving at about 50 kilometres a year. It didn't move much between 1900 and 1980, but it's really accelerated in the past 40 years," Ciaran Beggan, of the British Geological Survey, told Reuters.

A five-year update of a World Magnetic Model was due in 2020 but the U.S. military requested an unprecedented early review, he said. The BGS runs the model with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Beggan said the moving pole affected navigation, mainly in the Arctic Ocean north of Canada. NATO and the U.S. and British militaries are among those using the magnetic model, as well as civilian navigation.

Unpredictable changes inside Earth

The wandering pole is driven by unpredictable changes in liquid iron deep inside the Earth. An update will be released on Jan. 30, the journal Nature said, delayed from Jan. 15 because of the U.S. government shutdown.

"The fact that the pole is going fast makes this region more prone to large errors," Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information, told Nature.

British Royal Navy officers stand behind the compass on the bridge of the frigate 'HMS Sutherland' in 2018. The moving north pole has affected navigation, mainly in the Arctic Ocean north of Canada. NATO and the U.S. and British militaries are among those using the magnetic model for navigation. (Wallace Woon/EPA-EFE)

Beggan said the recent shifts in the north magnetic pole would be unnoticed by most people outside the Arctic, for instance using smartphones in New York, Beijing or London.

Navigation systems in cars or phones rely on radio waves from satellites high above the Earth to pinpoint their position on the ground.

"It doesn't really affect mid or low latitudes," Beggan said. "It wouldn't really affect anyone driving a car."

Many smartphones have built-in compasses to help to orient maps or for some games, such as Pokemon Go. In most places, however, the compass would be pointing only fractionally wrong, Beggan said, within errors allowed in the five-year models.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?