We’re adding a little science to our blog today to bring you news that the North Pole is moving! We’re not talking about reindeer and elves here, but rather the magnetic North Pole, which affects everything from navigation systems to military operations to apps on your smart phone.

What is the magnetic North Pole?

The magnetic North Pole’s location is used as part of the World Magnetic Model that both civilian and more sophisticated mapping systems are based on. It’s actually one of several “north poles” on our planet. One is true north, which is the northern end of the axis on which the planet turns. But the magnetic North Pole is actually the place where you could stand with a compass and all the magnetic field lines would be pointing vertically down. Magnetic north is susceptible to the movement of liquid iron in the Earth’s core. These currents tug on the magnetic field, which is what makes it move around. In fact, since its first formal discovery in 1831, the north magnetic pole has traveled more than 1200 miles from the Boothia Peninsula in the far north of Canada to high in the Arctic Sea. This wandering has generally been quite slow, around five to six miles a year, allowing scientists to easily keep track of its position. But since the turn of the century, this speed has increased to around 34 miles a year.

What happens when magnetic North Pole moves?

This rapid wandering of the north magnetic pole has caused some problems for scientists and navigators alike. Computer models of where the north magnetic pole might be in the future have become seriously outdated, making accurate compass-based navigation difficult. Although GPS does work, it can sometimes be unreliable in the polar regions.

To keep up with the wandering magnetic North Pole, The World Magnetic Model sends out an update every five years, with the last one in 2015. However, because the pole is moving so quickly, scientists responsible for mapping the Earth’s magnetic field were recently forced to update their model earlier than expected, sending out an update earlier this year.

How does a moving magnetic North Pole affect me?

Other than sounding really smart and impressing your kids, not much, unless you are in charge of detailed military operations, fly a commercial airline, decide to climb an Arctic mountain, or conduct search and rescue operations – all near the North Pole. For those of us here in California, the magnetic North Pole won’t affect wireless internet access, but it can affect some navigation apps on smartphones, even though you probably won’t notice it. So rest assured that a wandering pole shouldn’t cause too many problems, except for scientists who have to track it, and technicians in charge of updating navigation apps to keep you steady on course.