The geographical north and south poles are firmly fixed in position but the same cannot be said for Earth’s magnetic poles. Since 1831, scientists have witnessed a gradual change in the magnetic north’s position, and the drift has accelerated in the last 30 years. The pole appears to be drifting towards Siberia at a rate between 31 miles to 37 miles (50km to 60km) a year.
For comparison, when the pole shift was first observed, the magnetic north was drifting at a rate between zero miles and nine miles (zero km and 15km) a year.
To date, the magnetic pole has travelled about 1,400 miles (2,250km).
As a result of the shift, scientists have to frequently update the World Magnetic Model, which is a vital element of smartphone navigation systems and GPS.
Scientists now believe the pole will continue to drift for at least the next few decades, and the big question is whether the pole will return to Canada.
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Pole shift: The magnetic north pole is drifting from Canada towards Siberia
Pole shift: The magnetic north pole has been moving since at least 1831
According to Phil Livermore from the University of Leeds, the pole shift can be explained by “two large-scale lobes of negative magnetic flux” under Canada and Siberia.
In other words, the Earth’s magnetic field is determined by the flow of material around the planet’s core.
But two magnetic blobs under Canada and Siberia appear to be locked in a battle of tug-of-war, causing the north pole to move.
The discovery was made in part using the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Swarm satellite.
This has weakened the Canadian patch and resulted in the pole shifting towards Siberia
Dr Livermore said: “By analysing magnetic field maps and how they change over time, we can now pinpoint that a change in the circulation pattern of flow underneath Canada has caused a patch of magnetic field at the edge of the core, deep within the Earth, to be stretched out.
“This has weakened the Canadian patch and resulted in the pole shifting towards Siberia.”
The discovery was presented in the journal Nature Geosciences, where the study’s authors said: “Localized modelling shows that elongation of the Canadian lobe, probably caused by an alteration in the pattern of core flow between 1970 and 1999, substantially weakened its signature on Earth’s surface, causing the pole to accelerate towards Siberia.
“A range of simple models that capture this process indicate that over the next decade the north magnetic pole will continue on its current trajectory, travelling a further 390 to 660 km towards Siberia.”
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Models of the magnetic field inside the core suggest the pole will drift towards Siberia for the next few decades.
However, Dr Livermore said it would only take a “small adjustment” of the field to send the pole back to Canada.
Having a precise measure of the magnetic north is important for GPS calibrations and other navigation systems.
In February 2020 the US National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) updates its World Magnetic Model for 2020.
The model includes so-called “blackout zones” around the magnetic north, where compasses are prone to fail.
The NCEI said: “Smartphone and consumer electronics companies rely on the WMM to provide consumers with accurate compass apps, maps, and GPS services.
“The WMM is also the standard navigation tool for the Federal Aviation Administration, US Department of Defense, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and more.
“A new and updated version of the WMM is released every five years.
“The latest WMM2020 model will extend to 2025.”