If you follow apocalyptic news as closely as I do, you’ve seen an increasing number of reports on how the magnetic north is moving, with some alarming reports on how this could be a precursor to a dreaded, doomsday-inducing polar shift. I’m no scientist, but I’ll do my best here to separate fact from fiction.
Magnetic north is moving?
“Things are acting very strangely at high latitude.”
– Phil Livermore, University of Leeds
Yes. In fact, magnetic north has never stood still. In the last 100-150 years, the direction of our compasses have slowly moved northward. You see, some 1,800 miles beneath Earth’s surface, the molten iron core is constantly sloshing around. This is the source of magnetism that drives a compass’s needle, the same thing that helps migratory animals find their way. It moves. The same is true of Earth’s southern pole.
The World Magnetic Model, a joint produce of the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the UK’s Defence Geographic Centre, is a standard model used for navigation based on the geomagnetic field. It is updated every five years to adjust for movements in the Earth’s magnetic poles.
What is different now?
It’s moving faster than it ever has since it was first discovered (and tracked) in 1831. “It’s moving at about 50 km (30 miles) 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. For nearly two centuries, magnetic north has been in the icy wilderness of Canada, but is now relocating toward Siberia at about 40 miles per year.
It’s moving so fast, in fact, that the U.S. military requested an earlier review of the World Magnetic Model. While the sudden change doesn’t impact the average person (yet), it is throwing compasses off by about 1 degree every five years, creating challenges for aviation and migratory birds’ orientation.
Why is it moving so fast now?
No one knows, but at the 2018 American Geophysical Union fall meeting, it was presented as a magnetic “tug-of-war” where the poles are controlled by two patches of magnetic field, one under northern Canada, and the other under Siberia. The Siberian patch may be gaining the upper hand. This is merely theory, however.
What is a polar shift?
A “polar shift” is when the north and south poles reverse. In other words, all compass readings invert, pointing south instead of north.
This has happened before, the last time estimated to be about 780,000 years ago (source). Since it’s believed the poles shift once every 400,000 years, we are past due for a polar reversal. Some scientists wonder if the recent, sudden increase in movement could be a precursor to another polar shift.
What happens when the poles shift?
Some people say it will lead to the apocalypse, affecting ecosystems around the world, leading to earthquakes and gigantic tsunamis that would threaten the planet for decades.
Though apocalyptic scenarios like that can’t be ruled out, most scientists don’t believe it. A polar reversal takes at least a few thousand years to happen. In other words, it’s so slow that we really have nothing to worry about.
Will we all die?
Yes, one day, we will all die, polar shift or not.