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Earth's magnetic field is shifting and putting navigation at risk

Earth’s magnetic field, our silent guardian against harmful solar radiation, is a fickle protector. It fluctuates in strength and location, leading to issues in our navigation systems and a deeper understanding of our planet’s complexities. 

If you’ve ever used a compass, GPS, or even flown in an airplane, you’ve relied on this invisible force. But recent research reveals that our understanding of this field may need a tune-up.

Wandering poles of Earth’s magnetic field

Think of Earth’s magnetic field as a giant bar magnet within our planet, with lines of force extending from the North and South poles. But unlike a bar magnet, our planet’s magnetic field is anything but static. It’s constantly changing, thanks to the churning molten iron and nickel in Earth’s outer core.

Changes in Earth’s magnetic field pose significant challenges for scientists and engineers alike. The fluctuations, often triggered by solar storms and changes in the solar wind, are playing havoc with our geomagnetic field models. These models are crucial for everything from satellite navigation to airplane flight paths.

IGRF-13 model mismatch

A recent University of Michigan study delved into these discrepancies. The research team compared satellite observations with the International Geomagnetic Reference Field (IGRF-13), a standard model used to track Earth’s magnetic field.

“We often assume a nearly symmetrical magnetic field between the northern and southern polar regions, but they are actually very different,” said study co-author Yining Shi.

The researchers discovered that the discrepancies weren’t just due to space weather, as previously thought. A major factor was an asymmetry between the North and South poles, both in terms of magnetic field strength and their mapping to geographic coordinates.

Polar problems in Earth’s magnetic field

The North and South poles are not mirror images of each other when it comes to their magnetic fields. This asymmetry, combined with the fact that satellites often collect more data around the geographic poles, creates a bias that further exaggerates the differences between models and reality.

“Understanding that what has been attributed to geophysical disturbances is really due to the asymmetry of the Earth’s magnetic field will help us better create geomagnetic field models as well as help with satellite and aviation navigation,” said study co-author Professor Mark Moldwin.

To add another layer of complexity, Earth’s magnetic poles are not stationary. They drift, and in recent years, the North Pole’s movement has accelerated. This poses an additional challenge for creating accurate models and ensuring reliable navigation.

“This adds further complexity to creating accurate magnetic field models,” noted Moldwin.

The stakes are high

The implications of these findings are far-reaching. Accurate magnetic field models are essential for a wide range of applications, including:

Satellite navigation

Accurate magnetic field models are crucial for satellite navigation. Satellites rely on precise geomagnetic data to maintain their correct orbits and ensure proper functioning.

Any discrepancies in the magnetic field models can lead to errors in satellite positioning, which can affect communication, weather forecasting, and GPS services. Satellites operating in low Earth orbit are particularly sensitive to these changes, making accurate models indispensable for their operation.


In aviation, reliable magnetic field models are vital for safe navigation. Airplanes use geomagnetic data to determine their heading and ensure they follow the correct flight path.

This is especially important in polar regions, where the magnetic field is more variable and can deviate significantly from standard navigation charts. Accurate models help pilots navigate safely, avoiding potential hazards caused by unexpected magnetic variations.


For maritime navigation, magnetic field models guide ships across the oceans. Ships use magnetic compasses to determine their direction, and any inaccuracies in the magnetic field can lead to navigational errors.

This is particularly critical for vessels operating in remote areas with limited access to other navigational aids. Accurate magnetic models ensure that ships can traverse the seas safely and efficiently, reducing the risk of accidents and improving overall maritime safety.

Scientific research

In addition, accurate magnetic field models are essential for scientific research, particularly in understanding Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere, and thermosphere. These layers of the atmosphere play a crucial role in protecting the planet from solar radiation and cosmic rays.

By studying these regions, scientists can gain insights into space weather phenomena, such as solar storms, which can impact satellite operations, power grids, and communication systems on Earth. Reliable magnetic field models help researchers predict these events and develop strategies to mitigate their effects.

Space weather prediction

Understanding and predicting space weather is another critical application of accurate magnetic field models. Space weather events, such as solar flares and geomagnetic storms, can disrupt communication networks, damage satellites, and even affect power grids on Earth.

The models enable scientists to monitor changes in the Earth’s magnetic field and provide early warnings of potential space weather events. This helps in taking preventive measures to protect critical infrastructure and minimize the impact of these events on everyday life.

Refining Earth’s magnetic field models

The study highlights the need for a more nuanced understanding of Earth’s magnetic field. By accounting for the asymmetry between the poles and refining our data collection methods, we can develop more accurate models that will benefit navigation, scientific research, and our overall understanding of our planet’s dynamic electromagnetic shield.

Earth’s magnetic field is a complex and ever-changing phenomenon. While it continues to protect us from harmful solar radiation, its wandering ways remind us that our planet is a dynamic entity, full of surprises and challenges yet to be unraveled. 

The research conducted by the University of Michigan team is a significant step towards unraveling these mysteries and ensuring that our navigation systems remain accurate and reliable in the face of an increasingly unpredictable magnetic field.

The study is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics.


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