(WASHINGTON) — The Earth’s north magnetic pole has been moving away from Canada and toward Siberia so quickly that it has forced the world’s geomagnetism experts to update the World Magnetic Model a year earlier than expected, the journal Nature reported.
They had hoped to update the model — which describes the planet’s magnetic field and underlies all modern navigation, from the systems that steer ships at sea to Google Maps — on Jan. 15, but now the move has been postponed until Jan. 30 because of the partial U.S. government shutdown.
The most recent version of the model came out in 2015 and was supposed to last until 2020. “The error is increasing all the time,” said Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Centers for Environmental Information.
The problem lies partly with the moving pole and partly with other shifts deep within the planet. Liquid churning in Earth’s core generates most of the magnetic field, which varies over time as the deep flows change. In 2016, for instance, part of the magnetic field temporarily accelerated deep under northern South America and the eastern Pacific Ocean.
By early 2018, the World Magnetic Model was in trouble. Researchers from NOAA and the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh had been doing their annual check of how well the model was capturing all the variations in magnetic field. They realized that it was so inaccurate that it was about to exceed the acceptable limit for navigational errors.
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