Santa's Dilemma: When North Poles Shift or Disappear

January 29, 2016
North Pole

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!

About This Blog

Are you a weather watcher? Welcome to “Weather Whispers” by James Garriss and until recently, Evelyn Browning Garriss. With expertise and humor, this column covers everything weather—from weather forecasts to WHY extreme weather happens to ways that weather affects your life from farming to your grocery bill. Enjoy weather facts, folklore, and fun!

With heavy hearts, we share the news that historical climatologist and immensely entertaining Almanac contributor Evelyn Browning Garriss passed away in late June 2017. Evelyn shared her lifetime of weather knowledge with Almanac editors and readers, explaining weather phenomena in conversation and expounding on topics in articles for the print edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as in these articles. We were honored to know and work with her as her time allowed, which is to say when she was not giving lectures to, writing articles for, and consulting with scientists, academia, investors, and government agencies around the world. She will be greatly missed by the Almanac staff and readers.