Washington, D.C. may be gridlocked, but Earth's magnetic north pole is on the move. Recently, it's been traveling at an unprecedented rate. That pushed scientists to update a vital navigation tool used by defense departments and smartphones alike.
Up in the Arctic Ocean lies the geographic north pole. It's where all the world's longitudinal lines converge — and the rotational axis of our planet meets its outer surface. But guess what? Your compass won't take you there. Compasses point to the magnetic north pole, a different destination altogether.
Earth is surrounded by a magnetic field that has poles of its own. One of these is the magnetic north pole. If you own a dip compass — a handy gadget whose needle moves both vertically and horizontally — you'll know when you've reached this spot because the needle will be pointing straight down at a 90-degree angle.
However, the magnetic north pole isn't stationary. In 1831, it was hanging out along the Boothia Peninsula in Canada's Nunavut Territory. It has since drifted northward into the Arctic Ocean, getting closer and closer to Siberia. Last year, the pole finally crossed into the eastern hemisphere.
Prior to the mid-1990s, it was — as the journal Nature reports — traveling at speeds of around 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) per year. Its current clip? About 55 kilometers (34 miles) annually.
"It didn't move much between 1900 and 1980, but it's really accelerated in the past 40 years," geophysicist Ciaran Beggan told Reuters on Friday, Jan. 11. Scientists aren't exactly sure why the magnetic pole has picked up speed although it looks like a jet of liquid iron (one of the materials that influences magnetic fields) is driving it away from Canada.