A storm is raging in the center of the Earth. Nearly 2,000 miles beneath our feet, in the swirling, spinning ball of liquid iron that forms our planet's core and generates its magnetic field, and has formed, roiling the molten material under the Arctic
This geological gust was enough to send Earth's magnetic North Pole skittering across the globe.
And thanks to the political storm in Washington, scientists have been unable to post an emergency update of the World Magnetic Model, which cellphone GPS systems and military navigators use to orient themselves. Roughly half of the staff at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which hosts the model and publishes related software, has fallen due to partial government shutdown, now in its 27th day.
As reported in Nature, the updated model was supposed to be released this week. It would have been a minor change for most of us – the discrepancy between the model and the North Pole's new location is measurable only to people trying to navigate precisely and at extremely high latitudes
As long as NOAA staff are absent and the the agency's website is dormant, the world must go on navigating by the old model – which grows slightly more inaccurate every day
The exact cause of all this geomagnetic commotion remains a mystery. Earth's interior generates a magnetic field, and that field fluctuates according to the behavior of those flows. Consequently, the planet's magnetic fields do not exactly align with its geographic poles, and the location of these poles can change without warning. Records of ancient magnetism buried in the million- and billion-year-old rocks suggest that sometimes Earth's magnetic field even flips;
When British explorer James Clark Ross went looking for the North Pole in 1831, he found it in the Canadian Arctic. A Cold War era of the US expedition pinpointed the field 250 miles to the northwest. Since 1990, it has moved a whopping 600 miles, and last year it has crossed the international date line into the Eastern Hemisphere. (The South Pole has remained relatively stable.)
The World Magnetic Model is updated every five years to accommodate these shifts. The next one was not scheduled until 2020.
However, the network of magnetometers and satellites that track the magnetic field began to send strange signals. The movement of the North Pole was accelerating unpredictably, and the 2015 version of the World Magnetic Model could not keep up. Navigation tools that rely on magnetic fields for orientation were slowly drifting off target. With the U.S.
Research from the University of Leeds geophysicist Phil Livermore suggests that the pole's location is controlled by two patches of magnetic field, one below North Canada and another below Siberia. In the year 2017, he reported the detection of a jet of liquid iron that seemed to be weakening the Canadian patch
This may be what causes the pole to shift so fast, he said in a presentation at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December. "It's very hard to know what's going on because it's going on 3,000 kilometers below our feet," Livermore said. "There was a solid rock in the way."
By last summer, it became clear that the discrepancy between the World Magnetic Model and the real-time location of the magnetic field was about to exceed the threshold required for accurate navigation. Researchers for NOAA and the British Geological Survey, who have been working together to produce the model, spent several months analyzing the rapid change. Just before Christmas, the two agencies reached agreement on a new model and were preparing to publish their updated version
And then the government shut down
The British agency was able to publish some parts of the new model on its site, said William Brown, and a geophysicist with the British Geological Survey who works on the World Magnetic Model.
NOAA is responsible for hosting the model and making it available for public use, he said. "Some of that is currently unavailable."
Some have speculated that Earth is overdue for another magnetic field reversal. The geological record suggests these events happen three times every million years. The last was 780,000 years ago, around the time humans began to evolve.
"There is no evidence for that," Livermore said, but recent changes at the North Pole "might indicate that something abnormal is happening."
The The only way to find out is to continue tracking the Earth's magnetic field and try to interpret the signals it sends, Livermore said. "We've sent robots to Mars and put people on the moon, but we do not really have an idea of what's going on in the interior of our planet," he said. "It's really an exploration into the unknown."
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