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 constitutes our planet’s core and generates its magnetic field, a jet has formed, roiling the molten material beneath the Arctic.
This geological gust was enough to send Earth’s magnetic North Pole skittering across the globe. The place to which a compass needle points is shifting toward Siberia at a pace of 30 miles a year.
But scientists haven’t been able to post an emergency update to the World Magnetic Model, used by cellphone GPS systems and military navigators. About half of the staff at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which hosts the model, are furloughed because of the partial government shutdown.
As long as NOAA staff are absent and the agency’s website is dormant, the world will have to go on navigating by the old model — which grows a little bit more inaccurate every day.
The exact cause of this geomagnetic commotion is a mystery. Scientists know that the movement of molten iron in the Earth’s interior generates a magnetic field, and that field fluctuates. For this reason, the planet’s magnetic poles don’t align exactly with its geographic ones (the end points of the Earth’s rotation axis), and the location of the poles can change.
When British Royal Navy explorer James Clark Ross went looking for the North Pole in 1831, he found it in the Canadian Arctic. A Cold War-era U.S. expedition pinpointed the pole 250 miles to the northwest. Since 1990, the pole has moved 600 miles, and last year it crossed the international date line into the Eastern Hemisphere.
The World Magnetic Model is updated every five years, the next set for 2020. But 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. The U.S. military requested an unprecedented early review.
It became clear last summer that the discrepancy between the World Magnetic Model and the real-time location of the magnetic North Pole was about to exceed the threshold needed for accurate navigation. Researchers for NOAA and the British Geological Survey analyzed the change and, just before Christmas, reached an agreement on a new model and were preparing to publish it. Then the government shut down.
The British agency published some parts of the new model on its site, said William Brown, a BGS geophysicist.
But NOAA is responsible for hosting the model and making it available for public use, he said. “All of that is currently unavailable.”