Rapid shift in Earth's magnetism triggering urgent update in navigation program

Photo of Earth as seen from International Space Station (Photo: Alexander Gerst / NASA)

The difference between where the true North Pole and magnetic north pole is probably isn't something you think about on a daily basis, but that difference is shifting faster than anticipated, and it could affect something as simple as your cell phone, according to SpaceWeather.com.

Scientists long ago created the World Magnetic Model, which is a program that helps navigation programs from nuclear submarines to common smartphones correctly account for the shift between what it senses as north based on the Earth's magnetic field, and true north.

MORE |Earth's Shifting Magnetic Pole via SpaceWeather.com

“When you open your smartphone’s map app, you may see an arrow pointing which way you’re facing, and there’s something quite clever going on underneath,” Will Brown with British Geological Survey’s Geomagnetism Team told Dr. Tony Phillips with SpaceWeather.com. “Your phone contains a magnetometer that is measuring the Earth’s magnetic field. In order to make sense of this information, Android and iOS operating systems use the WMM to correct the measurements to true north.”

The magnetic north pole's location drifts a bit every year, but researchers have announced the program needs an emergency update because the Earth's magnetic field is changing more rapidly, according to Phillips.

Phillips says normally the model, based data from a global network of 160 surface observatories and satellites in low-Earth orbit, is updated every five years and that interval has been fine for the minor shifts in the magnetic pole, which are caused by fluctuations in the Earth's molten core. But now, things are suddenly changing faster than before, Phillips said.

“Since late 2014, Earth’s core field has varied in an unpredicted, and currently unpredictable, manner [including a sudden change in declinaton called a ‘geomagnetic jerk‘ in 2014/2015],” Brown said. "The aim of the WMM is to be globally accurate within 1 degree of declination, but we were going to exceed that limit in only 3 years.”

That’s why, for the first time, they are issuing an update to the model before the usual 5-year mark in 2020, Phillips said. It was supposed to be released on Jan. 15 but has been delayed until at least Jan. 30 because of the partial shutdown of the US government, according to Phillips.

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