World Magnetic Model updated early to reflect increasingly erratic movement of Earth's magnetic field

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The World Magnetic Model. Image: NOAA-NCEI
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The World Magnetic Model. Image: NOAA-NCEI

The model was last updated in 2015, and the next release was scheduled for 2020

The movement of the Earth's magnetic poles have become so unreliable that they can no longer be trusted for navigation. That is the warning of scientists, contained in the updated World Magnetic Model (WMM).

The new Model had been planned for release in mid-January, but had to be put back due to the US government shutdown

Earth's magnetic field is generated by the constant swirling of molten iron in the Earth's core. This uninterrupted motion of molten iron creates a complex pattern of magnetism, which is very difficult for scientists to accurately predict. 

"Due to unplanned variations in the Arctic region, scientists have released a new model to more accurately represent the change of the magnetic field between 2015 and now," according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Centres for Environmental Information.

The WMM is usually updated every five years. It was last updated in 2015, and the next release was scheduled for 2020. However, scientists were forced to update the model 'out of cycle' after finding that Earth's magnetic field is now moving at a more erratic rate and is leaving the Canadian Arctic and heading towards Siberia.

According to scientists, past estimates of the magnetic poles are now no longer accurate enough for precise navigation.

According to scientists, Earth's magnetic poles have the tendency to move slightly over the course of time, and can shift several kilometres in a single year. However, scientists have found that this rate of movement has become increasingly inconsistent in recent years, and they have no idea why is it happening.

The shifting of Earth's magnetic poles causes a problem for some consumer electronics products and compasses in smartphones. Ships and airplanes also rely on magnetic north as backup navigation. NASA, US Forest Services and the Federal Aviation Administration in the US also use magnetic poles for some measurements.

The first measurement of Earth's magnetic north pole was completed in 1831. At that time, the magnetic north was located in the Canadian Arctic. Since then, it has shifted about 2,300 kilometres toward Siberia. In 2000, the rate of movement was about 15 kilometres per year, which has now increased to 55 kilometres per year.

But, there is nothing to worry about it, says Ciaran Beggan, a geophysicist at the British Geological Survey, which works in collaboration with the NOAA to create the WMM. "It is unusual behaviour in historical terms, (by) geological scales it is not unusual," Beggan said.

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