Magnetic north pole is changing faster than forecast

Scientists were set to release a new World Magnetic Model after accelerating changes in earth's magnetic field, but the US government shutdown has stopped them for now. Navigation as we know it could be in jeopardy.

Scientists had planned to roll out a new update of the World Magnetic Model (WMM) on January 15 due to increased fluctuations in earth's magnetic field. However, due to the U.S. government shutdown, this has been delayed.

Nature and Environment | 07.12.2018

Although the magnetic north pole — unlike the geographic North Pole — is constantly in motion, the magnetic field is changing faster than scientists had previously forecast, according to a report published by scientific journal Nature this week.

The World Magnetic Model is updated every five years to account for shifts to the field and the last one took place in 2015. However, in 2016, part of the magnetic field "temporarily accelerated deep under northern South America and the eastern Pacific Ocean," according to Nature.

By 2018, scientists at US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the British Geological Survey realized they needed to release an updated WMM because it had become "so inaccurate that it was about to exceed the acceptable limit for navigational errors."

Nature and Environment | 31.10.2018

The wandering pole is driven by unpredictable changes in liquid iron inside the Earth.

Due to the US government shutdown, scientists have been unable to release the updated WMM. Instead, they have pushed back the date to January 30, hoping that the government will be running by then. But it's unclear if that will be the case.

Read more: Arctic's record warming propelling 'broad change' in climate: study

Infografik Nordpol Verschiebung EN

'Your orientation'

While location can be tracked using GPS technology, WMM provides orientation for aircraft, naval vessels and even smartphones. "Your orientation, the direction you are facing, comes from the magnetic field," said James Friederich, a scientist at the US National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency, in 2014 ahead of the last WMM update.

"Our war fighters use magnetics to orient their maps. Your smartphone camera and various apps can use the magnetic field to help determine the direction you are facing. All of these examples need the WMM to provide your proper orientation."

But scientists are still in the dark concerning the acceleration of changes in the magnetic field. The shifts are fueled by changes in currents — like those of the ocean — of molten iron in the earth's core. But why they're accelerating now remains a mystery.

Read more: Greenland ice sheet melting at 'exceptional' rate

Every evening, DW's editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.

NASA's IceBridge in the Arctic Circle

Mapping the ice

Operation IceBridge studies the processes that link the polar regions with the Earth's climate system. Rapidly changing polar ice means researchers need to use highly sophisticated airborne technology to measure annual changes in thickness and movement - onboard a retrofitted 1966 Lockheed P-3 aircraft.

NASA's IceBridge in the Arctic Circle

Ready for takeoff

It's all part of a six-year project under NASA's Cryosphere Program, in which researchers are carrying out a series of eight-hour flights over Greenland (from March to May) and Antarctica (October to November) in order to accurately model a three-dimensional view of ice sheets, ice shelves and sea ice.

NASA's IceBridge in the Arctic Circle

Ice meets cloud

In 2003, NASA launched a satellite called ICESat (Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite) for the purpose of monitoring changes in polar ice. However, it suddenly stopped collecting data in 2009. With ICESat-II not expected to be ready for launch until 2018, researchers needed to somehow bridge the nine-year data gap between the two satellites.

NASA's IceBridge in the Arctic Circle

Keeping an eye on things

Enter operation IceBridge, which has been keeping a close eye on the polar ice - as well as its cute inhabitants - while ICESat-II is prepped for launch next year. Or is the hare rather watching over these strange bipeds?

NASA's IceBridge in the Arctic Circle

Climate change in action

The data collected during these missions is critical for researchers in predicting the effects climate change is already having on the polar ice, including a rise in sea levels. According to NASA scientists, on March 7, 2017, sea ice in the Arctic reached the lowest maximum wintertime extent ever recorded.

NASA's IceBridge in the Arctic Circle

Seeing past the surface

A glacier is visible through mist above Ellesmere Island. Operation IceBridge allows scientists gather valuable data by using special ice-penetrating radar, which only functions properly when used in lower altitudes.

NASA's IceBridge in the Arctic Circle

Melting landscape

Scientists have long warned that the Arctic Circle will be one of the regions hit hardest by climate change - and effects are already becoming evident. The darker the color, the thinner the ice.

NASA's IceBridge in the Arctic Circle

Rugged terrain

Once ICESat-II is up and running, it will have the ability to take continuous measurements over a much wider area - unlike the current aircraft-based method, which is limited only to annual surveys.

NASA's IceBridge in the Arctic Circle

Trapped icebergs

Icebergs are locked in sea ice, as seen from the research aircraft along the Upper Baffin Bay coast above Greenland. Aircraft-based research allows its human pilots to focus on specific areas of scientific interest, rather than simply conducting a flyover on a fixed path.

NASA's IceBridge in the Arctic Circle

Ice on the retreat

As in Greenland, the ice fields of Ellesmere Island in Canada are also gradually retreating due to warming temperatures. The future of ICESat-II is now in question, as US President Donald Trump has pledged to strip funding for NASA's entire earth science program.