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Why is the north magnetic pole racing toward Siberia?

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Compass needle pointing northFinding Santa Claus‘s home at the North Pole is easy on a globe—just look for the point on top where all the lines of longitude meet. But that is just the "geographic" North Pole; there are several other definitions for the poles, all useful in different scientific or navigational contexts. Among the many north poles, let us rejoice that Santa Claus did not choose the magnetic pole for his home, for he would have to spend as much time moving as delivering presents.

The north magnetic pole (NMP), also known as the dip pole, is the point on Earth where the planet’s magnetic field points straight down into the ground. Scottish explorer James Clark Ross first located the NMP in 1831 on the Boothia Peninsula in what is now northern Canada, and with the planting of a flag claimed it for Great Britain.

But the NMP drifts from year to year as geophysical processes within Earth change. For more than 150 years after Ross’s measurement its movement was gradual, generally less than 15 kilometers per year. But then, in the 1990s, it picked up speed in a big way, bolting north–northwest into the Arctic Ocean at more than 55 kilometers per year. If it keeps going it could pass the geographic north pole in a decade or so and carry on toward Siberia. But why?

One compelling explanation appears in the December 21 Eos, the weekly transactions of the American Geophysical Union. In their Eos article (subscription required), and in a longer paper published earlier in 2010 in the Journal of Geophysical Research–Solid Earth, Arnaud Chulliat of the Institute of Earth Physics of Paris and his colleagues venture that a twisting molten plume beneath the Artic could be the cause:

According to some recent models, plumes of less dense fluid form at the inner core boundary and subsequently rise within [a cylinder] whose central axis is the Earth’s rotation axis. Such plumes undergo a strong helical motion due to the Earth’s rapid rotation, a phenomenon also observed in laboratory experiments with water. In the core, helical plumes advect and twist the magnetic field lines, forming what scientists call "polar magnetic upwellings."

Those upwellings, unloaded into the Arctic mantle, could produce intense patches of magnetic activity on the sort of decade-long timescales needed to explain the NMP’s sudden acceleration. (The authors compare these patches to a kind of terrestrial version of sunspots.) And magnetic field measurements show dramatic shifts near the New Siberian Islands that seem to fit the bill.

"What happened under the New Siberian Islands at the core surface is that the rate of change of the magnetic field changed by a large amount during the 1990s," Chulliat says. That activity, he and his colleagues have found, could account for a large portion of the NMP’s acceleration. But whether magnetic field changes under the New Siberian Islands and the speeding north magnetic pole ultimately arise from a twisted plume of fluid rising through the core remains unproved, Chulliat and his co-authors note. A resolution of the mystery will await better modeling, along with more data from satellites monitoring the Arctic’s magnetic environment. The necessity of satellites, interestingly enough, is a consequence of the pole’s recent movement—as the NMP drifts farther out to sea, it becomes harder and harder to reach the region with magnetometer-equipped aircraft.

Compass photo credit: Wikimedia Commons



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  1. 1. Josh1981 1:44 pm 12/24/2010

    Anyone possibley think that the poles are going through a magnetic reversal where the positive becomes negative, much like the sun does which happens every 11 years. Earth is caught in the gravity of the sun on a large orbit so its flip rotation would have to come from a source outside of the suns gravity field, since the sun and earth are always in perpendicular motion around. Possibley the super massive black hole in our Milkey Way which is located between Scorpio and Sagitaris. That is the center that our pole is slowly adjusting itself to. The closer to we move toward 2150AD the more radical it will become. After 2150 We have passed over the galactic plane and things should slow down on moving around magnetically for awhile.

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  2. 2. Bops 12:32 am 12/25/2010

    Maybe you could read the articles more carefully so your comments would reflect the subject.

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  3. 3. angiras 11:40 am 12/25/2010

    Why be such an alarmist? It is very satisfying that the magnetic pole is moving toward the geographic pole. Maybe it is just in a hurry to get ‘home.’ Worrying about where it might go well after that is sheer folly.

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  4. 4. BoRon 2:20 pm 12/25/2010

    I don’t think anyone’s being an alarmist. By studying the motion of the NMP on the surface, one can learn about the behavior of the earth’s hidden interior.

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  5. 5. terrylanciotti 2:13 am 12/27/2010

    I have been fighting people over this for quite some time…
    This is a real no brainer. Warming, less ice = more H20. The less ice you have, the less dense… our poles are like a bar magnet, therefore our tilt is based on Jupiter / Sun. The Sun pushing and Jupiter pulling. At some point our axis point will rotate and become flat, and the earth will spin on its side. It will be quite interesting to see what artifacts are discovered under all that ice.. anyway… Think of it like a figure 8, Rotating, twisting. Unless of course we have something strike the earth… While this twisting and rotating occur, volcanic activity that is now underway deep within our oceans will more directly affect our atmosphere, and form new land masses or Islands, if you will… the deeps will be as the ‘Snake River Canyon’ and vice-versa… As the cycle will continue…

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  6. 6. ihavenone 12:38 pm 12/27/2010

    Just want to point out something embarrasing in the article: it’s actually the magnetical SOUTH pole you’re talking about. The magnetical north pole is on the opposite of the planet, close to our geographical south pole. The needle of a compass points towards magnetic south, but as we use compasses to orient towards our geographical north, we simply call the needle "N" instead. This is basic knowledge in geography and orientation.

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  7. 7. EmptJay 12:57 pm 12/27/2010

    God, what a bunch of wackos.

    The earth is not going to flip to 90 degree tilt.

    The mass & density of the earth overall don’t change.

    ihaveone: It’s call the North Magnetic Pole because it’s the magnetic pole at the north end of the planet!

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  8. 8. charlief432 1:39 pm 12/27/2010

    Since Great Britain owns the NMP, it appears that it being exported to Russia. Aren’t there controls for that kind of thing? What would the US and Canadian governments say? What if Russia doesn’t want it?

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  9. 9. juxtapose82 12:57 pm 12/28/2010

    I can tell you why you have been fighting people with this. I don’t understand a single point you made from a scientific point. Are you trying to say that global warming will bring about a paleontolgy boom along with a dip in market shares due to compass failure? And the Earth is like a bar magnet in the sense that it has two opposite poles. No bar magnet has a molten core that determines North from South. The only way we could have the same amount of magnetic change that you are speaking of is if the mantle of the planet fell off and never had the surface harden again. Then the poles would likely change all the time (in fact never be constant) but I doubt I could prove this point without my TomTom in this post apocalyptic hell.

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  10. 10. juxtapose82 1:00 pm 12/28/2010

    I actually read a very interesting article on this question and the answer is maybe. Our flips happen rarely but apparently if they happen during a solar flare we all die. I don’t remember which era it was but one of Earth’s mass extinctions was thought to be caused by this.

    Is it happening now? According to the article, but then they always say this, we are overdue for a flip. Good observation.

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  11. 11. Wayne Williamson 2:16 pm 12/28/2010

    I thought they had mapped out in the 1940′s the alternating magnetic lines moving away from the Atlantic ridge. If I remember correctly, they point to the polarity flipping every 25k years(maybe it was 50k years)and led to the theory of plate tectonics…

    Oops…doing a quick Wikipedia search shows it flips on average every 300k years(widely varying) and the original finds were from the 50′s and 60′s…

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  12. 12. pinroot 3:21 pm 12/28/2010

    Warming, less ice = more H20. The less ice you have, the less dense

    I may be wrong here, but I think ice is less dense than water, which is why it floats on the surface of water. So, less ice = more H2O = higher density. Still, the article is about the MAGNETIC poles moving, not the poles as in the axis of the earth. This might explain why you’ve been fighting with people. This also assumes the whole theory of AGW is correct and that the "warming" will continue (well, it probably will as long as government funding continues to support it).

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  13. 13. dieselpop1 4:46 pm 12/28/2010

    This could lead to the destruction of all life on Earth! I demand that the EPA ban all use of magnets posthaste!

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  14. 14. jtdwyer 6:42 pm 12/28/2010

    You stated: "I don’t remember which era it was but one of Earth’s mass extinctions was thought to be caused by this."

    I just remembered – that’s not correct.

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  15. 15. BuckStern 9:47 am 12/29/2010

    The cretinists are going to be dancing a jig over this one. "You SEE?! We’ve been saying for years that the magnetic field changes too rapidly for the Earth to be more than 6,000 years old. Proof that God created everything."

    Ignoring, of course all of the other data showing that nothing of the sort has happened. But hey, when you know the Truth, then all of the "data" will always support your claims. Even if you have to make those data say something different.

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  16. 16. juxtapose82 9:54 am 12/29/2010

    Well like I said it was an article I read. I’m glad that you were there though so you can confirm that never happened.

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  17. 17. sbijapure 11:50 am 12/29/2010

    Really. Actually I got confused as I always assumed that Sci Am articles can never make such a mistake while I knew that magnetic south pole was (near)the geographic north pole.
    So Sci Am writers too can go wrong in basic things.

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  18. 18. BuckStern 1:26 am 12/30/2010

    "Really. Actually I got confused as I always assumed that Sci Am articles can never make such a mistake while I knew that magnetic south pole was (near)the geographic north pole."

    Uhhhmmm, not to make too fine a point of it, but can you show me where in the article the author said anything about the "magnetic south pole"?

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  19. 19. mikesmtn 4:37 pm 12/30/2010

    Fascinating stuff. And nobody is being an alarmist here. Geophysicists studying the magnetic field are simply trying to find out more about its origins deep within the earth. Jeesh people! Ever since climate change was politicized some people read so much more into science than is justified.

    A magnetic reversal is a matter of when, not if. It will happen, and there is evidence to support the fact that it will happen soon (that’s soon in a geologic sense). Important to realize that the earth will not change it’s rotation direction or speed as a result. Our moon and other factors keep the earth from flipping onto its side. And I can’t for the life of me figure out how climate change and the behavior of the magnetic field are related. They may be in some way, but I’m willing to bet it’s not nearly as important a factor as how much CO2 is in the atmosphere.

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  20. 20. mikesmtn 4:43 pm 12/30/2010

    Also, to the guy who corrected and said the magnetic pole in the northern hemisphere is actually the south magnetic pole, yeah of course. That’s high school physics. But by tradition we call it the north magnetic pole, for reasons of clarity (it’s near the north geographic pole).

    I really don’t think galactic goings on have anything to do with our planet’s internal workings. Could be wrong, but it’s a real stretch. A magnetic reversal could indeed happen in the next couple thousand years. How fast it would occur, and most importantly how long would we be without much of a field at all, nobody really knows right now. That’s why we need to study it.

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  21. 21. Josh1981 3:16 am 12/31/2010

    The only reason I through my first comment out to see if I got any feedback on this following idea. The earth has many internal layers that have a magnetic patterns much like the ones in the sun. If the sun does it, well nature has a way of mimicing its surroundings so I would assume the magnetisim is pulling some of these easier to move elements closer to the upper core throwing it off balance somewhat like a egg. Until it balances back out into a perfect sphere like water in a vacume. There are very few things that could effect our earths core so I try to seek the root answer as to why its speeding up. Not the crust we call home which doesn’t abruptly stop or cause mass havok like some insist, however its a very slow moving convayer belt that over time develops kinks and binds causing earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. I imagin the mantle has jet streams within itself much like our own. Only when science can send probes that can withstand the heat and map its movements from the inside will we truly know.

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  22. 22. Gauss 6:34 am 12/31/2010

    Hi guys. I think some of you must have been reading my book The Gauss Factor, published in 1997 but very relevant I think. Magnetic flip, solar activity, the molten core, the human pineal gland….

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  23. 23. Zontar 9:22 am 12/31/2010

    GLOBAL WARMING! It’s behind EVERYTHING! <== True fact! :O
    Then again, maybe I’m confounding cause and effect?

    Also, electric induction caused by magnetic movement is raising my power bills. I mean, rates have just been going up up UP for the past few years.

    Last thing: what’ll happen when the Russkies take possession of the NMP? Will they tax it as a service and thus drain the international economy of excess euros and US dollars being printed right now? And what about the Russians’ cornering the future production of north monopoles? The Chinese are pinching the rare earth supply; can mankind afford a shortage of elemental stuff?

    Pretty soon, we’ll have to squeeze magnetism out of the magnetic moments tiny protons and electrons just to get by.

    Looking dire for later this century,folks!

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  24. 24. Josh1981 7:10 pm 12/31/2010

    Our earth is directly effected by our magnetic presense as we spin around a much larger web. Each level of gravity from planets to stars effects earth, especially the center of gravity from which our star moves. We are meeting point 0 in the vertical journey through the medium of the milkeyway. The way we know its the medium is because of the bands like saturn, the point at which all stars balance and will eventially line up to make a uniform spiral galaxy as time continues to pull larger galaxies together, and push distant galaxies even further away due to expansion.
    The good news is, earth is no stranger to this, and has a very stable cycle compaired to most planets. I would imagin the worst crisis being the power grid getting hit by electromagnetic storms from a weak atmosphere, sending us back to the early 1900s for as long as years depending on severity. In anycase the scribes of the past even point to this time. So lets validate their prophecies by our selfish negligence of mother earths natural resources and life.
    Its worked thus far, or teraform it into a planet where only oil sucking parasites can survive. I feel sorry for the future generations who must take action because of our lack of.

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  25. 25. mikesmtn 10:32 pm 12/31/2010

    I really didn’t understand the guy who said our massive Sun is pushing on the Earth. Funny and I thought we were in orbit about the Sun and not flying out into the galaxy thanks to the Sun’s gravity pulling on us. Please someone tell me where I can find a place on the web to discuss scientific and environmental issues with intelligent people. PLEASE!

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  26. 26. mikesmtn 10:36 pm 12/31/2010

    Ihavenone, have you heard of labeling something due to convention, or to historical reasons. Everyone who listened in High School science knows about magnetic polarity and the terminology we use. But if the magnetic pole in the north were called the south magnetic pole, instead of north? Talk about confusion.

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  27. 27. mikesmtn 10:39 pm 12/31/2010

    This is interesting. A magnetic reversal is in our future. It’s a matter of when, not if. How fast it will happen, most importantly how long we will have to deal with a reduced magnetic field, that we can only guess at right now. How soon will it happen? Nobody knows this either, but there are several pieces of evidence (probably not including this, but I am not sure) that point to the beginnings of the process taking place now. It’s happened many times in the past without extinction. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. The research is definitely useful and worth supporting.

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  28. 28. vernwrites 1:12 pm 01/4/2011

    Does any of this cause warming at the surface? I’m wondering about the whole pile of hooey that centers around CO2, which is fairly benevolent.
    Some of the Antarctic warming, so-called, is probably due to volcanic activity under all that land and ice.

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