Earth's magnetic north pole is on the move and it's confusing the maps on your phone

Earth's magnetic north pole is on the move and it's confusing the maps on your phone
Business Insider India
  • The Earth's magnetic north pole is moving faster than faster before and headed towards Siberia, according to the World Magnetic Model (WMM).
  • The unplanned movement of the pole has implications for airlines and defence, but also for your phones.
  • Magnetometers inside phones rely on the WMM to tell navigation apps which way you're facing.
The Earth's magnetic North Pole is moving east, which is interesting but not unusual. What's unusual is how fast it is moving. At 55 kilometres a year, the pole is racing east at a pace faster than ever before.

So, while the geographical true north is still at the tip of the Prime Meridian, the magnetic north meandering towards the expanses of Siberia.

This obviously has long-ranging implications for the Department of Defence, airports and directional drilling companies. But that's not going to affect your day-to-day life. What you might want to be more worried about, are your phones and their reliance on navigation apps.

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"The continuous shift is an issue for compasses in mobile phones and some consumer electronics. Aeroplanes and ships rely on magnetic north, generally as backup navigation,'' said geophysicist Arnaud Chulliat from the University of Colorado.

‘Hey Google', tell me where to go

Most people don't even bother learning the names of streets anymore because they know Google Maps will get them where they need to go. While most of the ‘Maps' part of the data comes from satellites and has absolutely nothing what-so-ever to do with the Earth being in a rush to switch its magnetic poles — the same cannot be said for directions.

Majority of phones have three magnetic sensors. They tell navigation apps which direction you're facing, whether to go straight or take a u-turn. The same sensors enable Holly, the Google Assistant, to tell you whether to take a left or a right.

So, as the magnetic field around the world moves, your phone no longer knows which way it's facing.

Essentially, it will be like being thrown back to the days of 2G when after five minutes of walking in a particular direction, Google would suddenly wake and tell you that you needed to go a different way. Although what's happening today and what was happening with 2G is occurring for two entirely different reasons.

Is North the new South?

The poles aren't switching places — not for another 1,000 years anyway, according to experts. And, all hope isn't lost for smartphones either.

Magnetometers calculate directions based on the World Magnetic Model (WMM). It provides a five-year forecast on how the world's magnetic field is going to move.

"Smartphone and consumer electronics companies rely on the WMM to provide consumers with accurate compass apps, maps, and GPS services," according to the US National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).

Normally, it's updated every five years — the last update was in 2015, with the next one scheduled for 2020. But, due to these unplanned variations, an out-of-cycle update was released in February before the slated update in December.

So phones, for the most part, should work just fine. Yet, it won't hurt to learn street names maybe.

See also:
Earth's magnetic North has moved — Here's what that means for our navigation systems

What will happen when Earth's north and south poles flip

Earth's magnetic north pole is moving too fast for experts to keep up. Now scientists might know why.