Sea Science: by Jordanna Sheermohamed
Recent news headlines have piqued interest in an unusual update of the World Magnetic Model — unusual because it was released a full year earlier than scheduled.
The model, which is central to navigation systems, is normally updated every five years because magnetic north moves, and has done so ever since it was first located in the 1800s. The accelerated speed of magnetic north’s current migration, however, has caught the eye of scientists. They decided that the magnetic model update scheduled for 2020 could not wait, and a new magnetic north was officially released in early February.
Understanding the impact this has on yachting is important, as compass navigation remains an important tool for mariners. We’ve come to depend on the location of the magnetic north pole because a compass is designed to align to magnetic north. While GPS utilizes satellites for positioning, the accuracy of such position as well as the direction one is facing is dependent on the magnetic field.
Most regions around the world will not see significant impacts of the magnetic shift; it’s the locations in and around the Arctic and Antarctic regions where the differences are the most measurable.
According to John Flanagan and Dan Dale of Maritime Professional Training, “frequency/high frequency (MF/HF) radios are particularly utilized where satellite coverage is spotty or nonexistent. These devices are affected by magnetism and their effectiveness could be hampered if the shift in the magnetic poles continues to increase at a high rate.”
The natural and alternating magnetic pole shifts are a response to molten iron slushing around within the interiors of the Earth, and magnetic reversals have occurred many times throughout the planet’s history. Analyses of rocks that contain magnetic particles along the ocean floor can be observed in a striped pattern that align with the magnetic poles. The striped pattern has also migrated, providing both the qualitative and quantitative proof that the magnetic poles have shifted several times.
There are some interesting effects of a new magnetic north, apart from human navigation. Several animal species also depend on the location and strength of Earth’s magnetic field for navigation. An interference in their navigational dependency could induce unintentional changes in migratory patterns, which in turn could have ecological consequences.
Anyone who has witnessed an aurora, or those who wish to check this off their bucket list, would be interested to know that the locations of these atmospheric phenomenon are highly dependent on the location of the Earth’s magnetic field.
The intensity of the magnetic field acts as a protective shield around the Earth, guarding against harmful cosmic rays originating outside the solar system, as well as ionized particles known as plasma that are emitted from the sun via the solar wind. The magnetic field safely directs these particles around the Earth and into outer space, protecting our atmosphere from being eroded by this radiation.
Some of these ionized particles are attracted to the Earth’s magnetic poles, becoming the beautiful auroras that are observed in the high latitudes of both the North and South poles. Changes in the magnetic field mean these ionized particles may travel farther away from the polar latitudes, allowing the possibility of auroras to occur in the mid-latitudes.
Whether the migration of the characteristically unpredictable magnetic north will continue to accelerate is unknown, scientists say. There is no “normal” when it comes to our dynamic Earth. But despite recent headlines, there is no need for alarm over future magnetic pole shifts, although they will require industry-specific adaptive strategies – and possibly a vacation to finally cross that aurora off the bucket list.
Jordanna Sheermohamed is president and lead meteorologist of Weather Forecast Solutions, a weather-forecasting firm (WeatherForecastSolutions.com). Comments are welcome below.