Magnetic north pole barrelling towards Russia at unprecedented speed

5 Feb 2019

Image: © speed300/

Scientists are trying to keep up with a rapidly moving magnetic north pole that is threatening many day-to-day systems we rely on.

Just as GPS relies on the satellites orbiting our planet, the compass in our smartphones and even the designated names of airports are closely tied in with the location of the planet’s magnetic north pole. So, as the latter moves from one location to another, it is important that geophysicists keep track of it to update the systems that rely on it.

Now, the Associated Press (via The Guardian) is reporting that predictive models used to cater for this change are struggling to keep up with reality, with the magnetic north pole heading into Siberia almost a year ahead of schedule. The point is moving approximately 55km every year and in 2017 it moved past the international date line, the point of longitude in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is the crossing point between 11.59pm on one day and 12am on the next.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its international equivalents usually update the location of the magnetic north pole every five years, but this latest update was unprecedented, with the author of the new World Magnetic Model, Arnaud Chulliat, saying it is moving “pretty fast”.

Since it was first measured in the Canadian Arctic in 1831, the pole has moved approximately 2,300km towards Siberia. However, since 2000, its speed has jumped from 15km per year to 55km per year.

The reason for this, Chulliat explained, is that there is ongoing turbulence in the planet’s liquid outer core, a hot ocean of iron and nickel whose motion generates the electric field responsible for the magnetic north pole.

While the magnetic south pole is moving far slower than its northern counterpart, scientists have calculated that at some point, the planet’s north and south polarity will eventually flip. While having occurred a number of times in Earth’s history, the last time such an event occurred was almost 800,000 years ago.

For our descendants, there won’t be a sudden flip, but rather a gradual one that will take more than 1,000 years to complete.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic