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What is the Difference Between the North Pole and Magnetic North Pole?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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The difference between the North Pole and the Magnetic North Pole is that the former is a geographic pole with a stationary location at 90° North. This geographic North Pole, also known as true north, is the fixed northernmost point on earth from which all points lie south. The magnetic pole is not based on true north, but on the magnetosphere of the planet. It lies hundreds of miles (kilometers) from true north, with its exact position constantly shifting.

Roughly analogous to a magnet, the Earth generates a magnetosphere through magnetic north and south poles. The magnetosphere forms a large, charged field around the earth, with pinched funnels or cusps at each pole. The Magnetic North Pole marks the point where the magnetic field feeds downwards to Earth at a 90° angle, relative to the surface. As solar wind particles blast towards earth, most are deflected by the magnetosphere. Some solar particles, however, slip into the pole cusp, creating the aurora, or Northern Lights over Canada.

As the magnetic field shifts, the exact position of the Magnetic North Pole migrates. It is moving so fast, that in 2005 the BBC reported some scientists projected that it would be over Siberia by 2055. Other scientists believe the migration recorded to date could be part of an oscillation pattern that will ultimately have the pole shifting back towards Canada.

The position of the Magnetic North Pole was first calculated and recorded in 1831. By 1904, it had moved some 31 miles (50km). The Geological Survey of Canada determined its average 2001 position as being 81.3° North, by 110.8° West, moving northwest at a rate of about 25 miles (40km) per year.

Magnetic compasses point to the Magnetic North Pole versus true north. This isn’t of great concern for most people, but those traveling in Arctic regions must take the position of the Magnetic North Pole into consideration for an accurate calculation of true position. If possible, a better tool for navigation would be a global positioning system (GPS).

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Discussion Comments
By candyquilt — On Dec 17, 2014

@donasmrs-- That's a great question. I read an article about this recently and scientists are worried about the same thing. As of 2014, the Magnetic North Pole is moving hastily towards Siberia and apparently, it's also weakening. Scientists think that if the Magnetic North Pole keeps moving at the same pace and direction, there may eventually be a pole reversal. This is a very rare occurrence that only happens about once every 200,000 years. Of course, scientists don't know for sure that this will happen, but they're worried.

The other issue seems to be the weakening of the magnetic field. I didn't know this either but the article mentioned that the magnetic field protects us from radiation and it keeps the climate stable too. So a weak magnetic field can mean strange climate changes and more illness in the world.

So the consequences can be very serious. Based on what scientists are predicting right now, it doesn't look too bright. Let's just hope that the Magnetic North Pole makes a turn to where it was before and strengthens soon.

By donasmrs — On Dec 16, 2014

Oh I knew about compasses pointing towards the Magnetic North Pole. What I didn't know is that it's constantly moving.

What will happen if the Magnetic North Pole doesn't eventually oscillate back toward Canada? Is it even possible for it to move northwest indefinitely?

By bear78 — On Dec 16, 2014

@Reminisicence-- You know, I've always done the same but I had no idea that it was because the needle is pointing at the magnetic north rather than the true north. I can't believe that I didn't know this for so long!

I agree that for most people are just interested in the general direction of north, this is not a problem at all. It's also probably not a problem for people in the southern hemisphere when they need to go towards the north. But for people in the very northern hemisphere need to make sure they use GPS instead like the article said.

By Reminiscence — On Jan 19, 2014

I remember when I was a Boy Scout we were always taught to adjust for magnetic north on a compass. The compass needle would always point off to the left of the North setting, so we'd twist the dial until the N matched up with where the needle was pointing. I don't think it really made that much of a difference when hiking through the woods, but I suppose a big ship on the open ocean would need to know that sort of thing.

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