The Earth’s Magnetic Poles Are Shifting, But What Does That Actually Mean For Us?

The poles shift once about every 600,000 years.

This is a stock photo of the earth's magnetic field.
Siberian Art / Shutterstock

The poles shift once about every 600,000 years.

The Earth’s magnetic poles are shifting, and soon north will become south and south will become north and everything will be thrown into chaos. Okay, maybe not, says a prominent American geologist via Sputnik News, but there will be effects here on the ground.

The Ever-Shifting Poles

You may remember from elementary school that Magnetic North (the site of the magnetic north pole) and True North (the point on the map, and on the ground, where the lines of longitude all combine at the northernmost point on the globe) aren’t in the same position – nor have they been within the lifetime of anyone reading this article (the same is true of the South Poles). Right now, they’re about 310 miles apart, and the magnetic poles are moving, north to south and south to north, at about 34 miles per year.

That might not seem like much, but as of this writing, the magnetic north pole is approaching the shores of some Arctic islands in northern Canada. And at the rate it’s moving, in 20 years it will be 640 miles further south.

The reason they’re moving is due to the same reason they exist in the first place: convection currents under the surface of the Earth. All of that liquid metal sloshing around under the surface generates our planet’s magnetic fields – and moves them around, says North Carolina State University professor Dr. Paul Byrne.

“It’s the change in speed of the rotation of the different parts of the outer core, that means the movement of the magnetic north pole is not the same speed through time.”

It’s a natural process that’s been going on for billions of years, and scientists predict that the poles shift about every 600,000 years. And we’re in the midst of a pole shift now.

So What Does It Mean?

Everything and nothing, says Byrne.

For centuries, humans have used the North Pole as the touchstone for navigation. Point your compass toward North, assess your position, do some quick geometry, figure out where you need to go, and you’re set.

Of course, that system is used today primarily by Boy Scouts and old-school mountaineers; the rest of us use GPS, which is based on satellites in space and not locations on the ground. But, there are a few places where GPS satellites don’t do the job, and you have to rely on magnetic navigation. And one of those places is, ironically, the Arctic.

Various militaries, including that of the U.S., have a presence in the Arctic, as do fishermen, commercial aircraft, and if it ever comes to it, nuclear warheads traveling between, say, the U.S. and North Korea. In those places, navigation based on the poles is still done, and it’s only going to get harder and weirder in the years to come.