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Santa's Dilemma: When North Poles Shift or Disappear

December 9, 2013

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Even as Arctic air is freezing us this December, the North Pole is moving farther away!

If you think that is puzzling to you, imagine how bewildering it is for Santa to have his workshop racing towards Russia.

Of course, it is not the real poles that are moving; it is the North and South Magnetic poles. The North Pole is the top of the axis that the solid Earth spins around. The Magnetic North Pole is the axis that the dense liquid core of the Earth spins around. It is currently in Northern Canadian waters and is speeding north at about 6 miles (10 km.) a year!

The North Magnetic Pole has been in Canada for hundreds of years but is now moving towards Russia. Enlarge this image.

Source: Wikipedia, by Tentotwo based on data from National Geophysical Data Center

The actual North Pole is stable. What moves is the axis of the Earth’s iron core. The spinning of this core generates the Earth’s magnetic field. There is enough pressure at the center of the earth that the core is an incredibly hot liquid. Floating inside the liquid is the spinning iron core.

The sloshing liquid core of the Earth moves the magnetic poles. Source: NASA

Liquids slosh. Earthquakes and meteor strikes cause the liquid core to ripple and slosh around, changing the poles. Sometimes whirlpools form, creating multiple north and south poles. There were times when the Magnetic North Pole slowly moved all the way down to where the South Pole is today! (This did not affect the actual rotation of the Earth or the planet’s living animals.)

Earth’s magnetic pole reversals are slow, averaging one flip every 450,000 years, and take between 1000 to 10,000 years to make the flip. Compare this to the sun, which also has a dense spinning core and magnetic poles. The sun’s poles flip every 11 years!

The sun’s magnetic poles flip every 11 years. Source: NASA

In fact, the sun is in the middle of a very weird flip. The North Pole finished changing and is now the South Pole. But its South Pole isn’t changing giving the sun two South Poles!

If Santa has problems here on Earth, chasing the (magnetic) North Pole towards Russia, imagine the problems he would have on the sun with no North Pole (and a scorched workshop)! Mixing science and fantasy would make the Jolly Old Elf flip out faster than the magnetic poles!

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Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologist, blogger, writer for The Old Farmer's Almanac, and editor of The Browning Newsletter, has advised farmers, businesses, and investors worldwide on upcoming climate events and their economic and social impact for the past 21 years.

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