Scientists scramble to keep up with earth’s changing magnetic North Pole

World Today

Military navigators, sailors and pilots all rely on the magnetic North Pole to help orient them. But the North Pole is constantly moving, forcing scientists to scramble to keep up.

CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy reports.

Brandon Jewett is a commercial pilot who, in his spare time, flies his Douglas DC-3, a propeller-driven plane that was used to transport troops during World War II.

“If you were driving your car versus driving a motorhome, this is like driving a motorhome,” Jewett said.

The cockpit is appropriately retro. It uses a whiskey compass, named after the alcohol that once lubricated these devices.

Navigation, though, has come a long way since the days of American aviator Charles Lindbergh, but even in this high-tech, GPS-driven age, the compass remains an indispensable tool for pilots.

“And to this day, is one of the original required basic instruments that every single airplane must have,” Jewett said.

Most compasses use the Earth’s magnetic field to tell us which way is north, but the problem is the magnetic North Pole has always had a hard time staying in one place.

In fact, it was moving at the rate of 10-15 kilometers (6-9 miles) per year from the Canadian Arctic, towards Siberia. Then in the 1990s, it sped up to 55 kilometers (34 miles) per year .

“I find it spectacular that the speed increased that much in such a short period of time,” said Armaud Chulliat, a research scientist with the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Chulliat thinks the increased speed is caused by the flow of liquid iron deep inside Earth’s core.

Gradually, the “Siberian sprint”, as it’s been called, has made the navigational maps used by airlines and ships out of date.

“Where it becomes critical for a pilot is if you were trying to navigate with an old chart,” Jewett said. “You’d have inaccurate information.”

In February, scientists released an emergency update to the World Magnetic Model that aids global navigation, and over time, airports have had to rename runways that were named for their magnetic heading.

The polar drift has even led to speculation that a weakening magnetic field might lead the north and south magnetic poles to flip spots, which last happened 780,000 years ago — but there seems to be no signs of that just yet.

Nonetheless, Jewett has updated his compass, an instrument pilots can’t do without.

“There’s endless aviation stories of how the compasses saved their life,” Jewett said. “You know helped them find where they were going.”

As for where the North Pole is going, that’s anyone’s guess.