Earth's magnetic north pole was moving so fast geophysicists had to update the map

By Laura Geggel
February 06, 2019, 2:31:43 PM EST

Now that the government shutdown is over, federal agencies have finally released an early edition of the World Magnetic Model, almost a full year before the next one was scheduled to be released, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced today (Feb. 4).

Previously, the World Magnetic Model, which tracks Earth's roving magnetic north pole, was updated in 2015 with the intent that the model would last until 2020. But the magnetic north pole had other plans. It began lurching unexpectedly away from the Canadian Arctic and toward Siberia more quickly than expected.

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A new study released in early February revealed that Earth's magnetic field is moving faster than expected (Credit: Shutterstock)

"We regularly assess the quality and accuracy of the model by comparing it with more recent data," said Arnaud Chulliat, a geophysicist at the University of Colorado Boulder and NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). In January 2018, "we figured out that the error was increasing relatively fast, especially in the Arctic region. And the error was on track to exceed the specification before the end of the five-year interval."

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This map shows the location of the north magnetic pole (the white star) and the magnetic declination (see contour interval of 2 degrees) at the beginning of 2019. Credit: Courtesy of NOAA NCEI/CIRES

Almost immediately, NOAA scientists began to work with their counterparts at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, Scotland, to produce an update. The scientists collected the most recent data of magnetic field recordings from the past few years and plugged that into the model, which allowed the researchers to extrapolate where the pole would be in the near future, Chulliat said.

The updated model was initially slated to be released on Jan. 15, but the release was delayed because of the 35-day government shutdown, which lasted from Dec. 22, 2018, until Jan. 25, 2019.

However, this update will be used only for 2019. At the end of this year, the new World Magnetic Model for 2020 through 2025 will be released, Chulliat told Live Science.

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