Saturday, February 09, 2019
"The north magnetic pole is moving eastward at an accelerating pace. Is doomsday nigh?
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It was hard to see the headlines proclaiming that the north magnetic pole is speeding toward Russia and not feel a pang of anxiety. Vladimir Putin annexing the North Pole? Climate change threatening more global chaos? Malevolent cosmic rays about to burst through Earth’s magnetic shield?
The stories under the headlines proved less alarming. The sudden (in cosmic terms) lurch of the north magnetic pole turned out to be a phenomenon for which humans bore no responsibility and for which responsible institutions and monitors (well, when the United States government was not shut down) had effective solutions.
The magnetic pole is the spot a compass points to as north; it is distinct from the geographic North Pole, which is where all the lines of longitude meet at the top of the world (and where Santa Claus maintains his workshop). For now, it is situated four degrees south of the geographic North Pole.
The Earth’s magnetic poles, it seems, have always been on the move, and have even swapped places several times over the eons. The reason is that the molten iron deep inside our planet sloshes around, shifting the magnetic field with it. And since compasses point to the north magnetic pole wherever it happens to be at any given time, the United States and Britain collaborate in issuing an updated World Magnetic Model every five years to make sure everyone’s on the same map.
The next update was due in 2020. But in early 2018, scientists found that the north magnetic pole had picked up speed and was heading eastward at a lively clip, about 35 miles a year. They decided to move up a new model, which became available soon after the partial government shutdown ended.
It’s out now, which is good news for planes flying over the North Pole, for airports that name runways in relation to the magnetic north, for GPS providers and for anyone else in need of precise directions. For most everyone else there’s little difference. South, say, of the northern tip of Scotland, the correction amounts to only a small fraction of a degree.
That has not prevented online tabloids from having an apocalyptic field day. The part that feeds their doomsday scenarios is the possibility that the poles are preparing for another polarity reversal, which would cause a compass to point south instead of north. The quirk is normal — over the past 20 million years, it has occurred, on average, every 200,000 to 300,000 years. The last one was about 780,000 years ago, so another may be overdue.
That could lead to a temporary weakening of the magnetic field that protects Earth from cosmic radiation. And that’s where the doomsday scenarios pile in. An article in Undark Magazine declared, “It’s time to wake up to the dangers and start preparing,” evoking a world in which a devastating stream of malevolent cosmic radiation would wreak havoc on lives and power grids.
The specter of an Earth left without a magnetic shield has come up before, notably during the Mayan apocalypse that predicted the world would end in 2012. Back then, NASA posted a response that explained the science of pole reversals and concluded that “there is nothing in the millions of years of geologic record to suggest that any of the 2012 doomsday scenarios connected to a pole reversal should be taken seriously.”
As it turns out, the geographic North Pole, the location of the planet’s spin axis, is also shifting east, not as strikingly as its magnetic cousin, but for the wrong reasons. The North and South Poles always wander a bit, but the movements have increased, and scientists theorize that the redistribution of mass on Earth as glaciers and ice sheets melt is one of the major reasons.
We have caused the Earth to wobble, and it’s getting worse. Several recently published studies warn that ice at both ends of the Earth is melting far faster, and oceans are warming far faster, than previously thought, suggesting that scientific estimates of a warming planet have been too conservative. Those are the headlines that should be causing real concern.
Opinion | Which Way to the North Pole? - The New York Times