Shifty Poles: When Magnetic Poles Flip

February 5, 2018
North Pole

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When most people think of the North Pole, they think of Santa Claus and his workshop of jolly elves.

Other folks, more paranoid, think of the Mayan calendar, and the warnings that the magnetic poles will flip and annihilate life on Earth. Few think of the real fact that last year the shifting magnetic north pole closed down an airport in Florida!

The North Magnetic Pole is shifting from Canada to Russia. Source: NASA

You see, while the actual North Pole, the axis that the Earth spins, is very stable, the magnetic north pole is always on the move. Historically it moves roughly 6 miles (10 km.) a year. It used to be right over Canada’s north coast. Now it is drifting through Canada’s Arctic Islands towards Russia. This makes it awkward if you are using a compass to navigate, as airplanes do.

Last year, Tampa International Airport had to close its runways because of the shift. Airport runways are labeled with their compass directions to help landing pilots. For example, for decades their main runway was Runway 18R/36L, indicating its alignment along the 180˚ approach from the north and the 360˚ (due north). By last year, the magnetic north pole had moved so much that the compass readings had changed 10 degrees and they had to rename the runway 19R/1L on aviation charts.

This movement, however, is minor. In the past we’ve seen the magnetic poles flip, so that compasses that pointed to the North Pole would point towards Antarctica! Geological records shows the poles usually flips about every 300,000 years.

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

Remember, the real axis of the spinning world has not shifted. What is moving is the axis of the iron core of the Earth. The spinning of the molten iron core generates the Earth’s magnetic field.

Liquids slosh. Huge 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. Currently there is a weird area with almost no magnetic force off the coast of Brazil, called the South Atlantic Anomaly.

When magnetic poles flip Source: NASA

When poles flip, geology shows they go from two poles, to multiple poles, back to two poles that have changed hemispheres. The process takes thousands of years. Life forms have lived through the shift multiple times.

So if the Doomsday prophets are right and the poles flip—don’t expect much in the way of doom and gloom. It might just mean that our great-grandchildren will watch the Northern Lights from sunny Florida.

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.

Reader Comments

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No reversal for 780,000 years

I don't understand this sentence
"The process takes thousands of years. Humanity has lived through the shift multiple times."

No we have not. The last flip occurred 780,000 years ago. Homo sapiens did not exist then, we were Neanderthals or just homo erectus back then.

I think the author meant LIFE has survived through the shift multiple times, since there is no evidence linking magnetic reversals with extinction events.

Life, Uhh, Finds a Way

The Editors's picture

You’re right; it should have said life, not humanity. Thanks for catching that! We’ve corrected the article.

I raised 2 boys with facts

I raised 2 boys with facts about the weather and the stars, and anything else they were curious about. Children have as much ability to understand, when explained to them, as adults. There will always be people in this world that like to cause trouble. Gossip on any level should be ignored. My sons are now adults, and I just forwarded this article to them. We love to be able to express the real facts to those worry warts.

Hi Evelyn, I know this has

Hi Evelyn, I know this has nothing to do with magnetic pole shifts but right now in North Carolina we broke a standing record in the mid 70s today. Its December and were still going to be held in the 60s all week. I was watching the weather and I said to my husband "I dont think we're having a winter this year" and my 6 year old son happened to see the weather and he stormed to his room crying because he wants that winter this year. He's taking this seriously, he wants a colder December than last year but thats not happening. Goodness Gracious!! Is it ever going to feel like December? and is this going to be another winter that wasent? My holiday season is being ruined, come December 21 I dont know whether it'l be winter or spring. Confused winter lovers all over the US wondering whats going on

On December 22, 2012 I expect

On December 22, 2012 I expect to wake up and say "I TOLD YOU SO" to these doomsdayers. These people are gonna feel awfully horrible sitting on their porch waiting for the world to end. Cant say we didnt tell them, right?
Another thing I expect on December 22 is a WINTER in the eastern portion of the country. Not a spring. This 70 degree weather is RIDICULOUS, Evelyn. I want it out of here As Soon As Possible. Im glad its December but I want it to feel like it. I refuse to watch Christmas movies and listen to my Christmas music until it feels like December. Depressing warm December weather, this is screwy to me

There is a scientist that

There is a scientist that claims heating and cooling is cyclical about every 50 years and around 2050, the earth will start getting cooler again.
I admire your opinions and am curious as to it on this theory ?
Keep up the great work !!!

He is describing the Pacific

He is describing the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a huge heat circulation cycle in the Pacific. It is a 50 - 60 year cycle that warms and cools the waters of the Pacific. Yes, the PDO was in its warm cycle for decades and has recently begun the cooling phase. So its not the earth but the largest ocean on the earth that is cooling.

I don't think most preppers

I don't think most preppers believe 12-21 is the end of the earth, some may believe it's the end of an age on earth. I think most preppers in the USA are preparing for various natural diasters, such as drought, rising food costs, financial breakdowns and either military rule or riot rule. Many of us take the Bible as truth and we read about Moses convincing Egypt to prepare and have seven years worth of food and water on hand for its' citizens, and enough to barter with various other tribes outside of it's city. Preppers don't want anything bad to happen, but they want to provide for basic necessities in case they do.

As Hurricane Sandy has shown,

As Hurricane Sandy has shown, it's always wise to have some preparation, including family plans. Unexpected things happen and life is easier if you have a cushion or plan to fall back on.

I like this kind of

I like this kind of information, it helps people too understand the truth of how our planet really works.

Thank you. It's fun to write

Thank you. It's fun to write about.

How do scientists and many

How do scientists and many folks in the science field feel about December 21, 2012 linked to the end of the world scares? I don't believe the poles shift in one day
I have another question about winter: Is there a cold arctic outbreak coming to the midwest & east in late November into December? People have been saying winter is coming after Thanksgiving. I'm sorry, you must get these winter questions all the time.

Everything I've seen

Everything I've seen indicates cooler weather after Thanksgiving. Hopefully it won't get too bad, since a lot of people will be on the road or flying home.

150 years ago when I was

150 years ago when I was young, back in the 60s I remember hearing fears of the end of the world. I think it was the cold war that kept people fearing the end was near because everyone used to think that WW3 would be the end of the world. Then fast foward to the 1990s and im hearing Y2K scares. What im saying is, there have been thousands of predictions for the end of the world and were still here. 2012 is a fraud! People want to spread rumors all over the internet to make $$$. Scientists and astronomers have even created a website about 2012 being a hoax. Julia, Im so sorry for your son. These children are going to watch this on television and get scared!
this website should explain it all. Its created by astronomers and scientists to eliminate the 2012 fears. So everyone this December 21, 2012 cuddle up in your blankets, drink some egg nog, light up those christmas trees, watch the Christmas movies we enjoy watching every year, and be happy because many many meteorologists are promising a winter this year!

Like you, I remember a lot of

Like you, I remember a lot of the earlier scares. I remember how "duck and cover" was supposed to save me from nuclear apocalypse. You recommended a good site.

It looks like December 21 will merely be the first official day of winter -- a real winter with snow.

Happy first day of winter to

Happy first day of winter to everyone on December 21 2012.

I have found the Mayan calendar useful for telling us about their agricultural cycles but using it for a doomsday prophesy is basically a way to sell books and TV programs. I'm sorry for your poor son.

Yes, this is true. My son was

Yes, this is true. My son was watching something about doomsday 2012 on tv and he was crying. He is 9 years old. In my opinion, they should just let go of the "December 21, 2012" thing all together. It takes thousands of years for the poles to switch, much less 1 day. Its just the end of a mayan long count calender. The mayans never even meant for it to represent a doomsday prediction. Ive done research on these claims too and it turns out: there are no planetary allignments next month, there is no such thing as nibiru and the magnetic poles take many thousands of years to do so. So lets all celebrate December 21st as the first day of winter :)

Julia, I agree that they

Julia, I agree that they should let go of this but think about all the money that is pumped into this idea. They make movies depicting the end of days in 2012, they have shows of people preparing for doomsday and so on. It's all about the money. My husband is of Maya descent and he explained to me it's the end of one calendar and the beginning of another. The cycles are called Baktun. If you have a moment, check it out. You will find it interesting. If I'm not mistaken, we will be entering the 13 Baktun.

There is no planetary

There is no planetary alighment but on that day the earth and sun and equater of the milky way line up. It happens about every 26,000 years. And there is a rogue planet roaming around out there. A brown dwarf if you will. Its proably not the end but it makes life interesting. Carl Sagan stated that it would cause the earth to stop rotating and that would cause the seas to boil. Interesting dont you think?


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