A discussion of the Arctic Circle isn’t complete without mentioning the North Pole. Defined as the northernmost point on the Earth, the North Pole is used as a geographical reference for travelers due to the fact that compasses always point north, and it also looms large in popular culture as the home of Santa Claus and other mythical figures. However, there is a significant difference between the Geographical North Pole and the Magnetic North Pole.
While both of the North Poles are in roughly the same location, they do not overlap perfectly and indeed have very different functions. Read on to learn the difference between the Geographic North Pole and the Magnetic North Pole.
Magnetic North Pole vs. Geographic North Pole
The Geographic North Pole, also sometimes called the Terrestrial North Pole, is defined as the region where the Earth’s axis meets its surface. At the Geographic North Pole, all lines of longitude converge and its latitude is defined as 90 degrees north, the northernmost point on the globe. At the North Pole, all directions point south. The South Pole, located in Antarctica, is its opposite. Both poles are antipodal, meaning that a straight line drawn between them will intersect with the Earth’s core.
The Geographic North Pole has been a point of interest for scientists, explorers, and governments, who have sought to monitor and examine it over the centuries. Unlike the South Pole, which is located on a landmass, the Geographic North Pole is located on an unstable mass of sea ice, making it difficult or impossible to construct permanent monitoring stations there. However, the U.S., Canada, and Russia have engaged in various missions and projects to map and examine the North Pole.
The Magnetic North Pole is the location where the Earth’s magnetic field points vertically downward. If a compass is used at the Magnetic North Pole, it will point downward towards the center of the Earth. Unlike the Geographic North Pole, the position of the Magnetic North Pole is not fixed and is constantly shifting due to changes in the planet’s magnetic field. It is currently located off Ellesmere Island in northern Canada, a fair distance from the Geographical North Pole, and has been moving towards Siberia at a rate of roughly 35 miles per year.
Like the Geographical North Pole, the Magnetic North Pole has a counterpart in the Magnetic South Pole. However, unlike the geographic poles, the magnetic poles are not antipodal due to the unpredictability of shifts in the magnetosphere. The Magnetic North and South Poles are where the Earth’s magnetic field are generated and are responsible for protecting the planet from harmful solar radiation.
Roughly every 450,000 years, the Magnetic North and South Poles reverse polarity in an event known as geomagnetic reversal. In this process, the Magnetic North and South Poles begin migrating towards each other’s positions, a process that takes thousands of years. When it is complete, the Magnetic North Pole becomes the Magnetic South Pole and vice versa. According to scientists, the most recent geomagnetic reversal occurred roughly 780,000 years ago, implying that the Earth will undergo another reversal in the next few thousand years.
During a geomagnetic reversal, many unusual events occur on Earth. For example, a reversal results in an increased prevalence of auroras in places other than the Geographic North and South Poles, due to the fact that auroras are linked to the planet’s magnetic field. Compasses also cease to function as reliable tools because they point to the Magnetic North Pole, not the Geographical North Pole.
Some scientists have hypothesized that geomagnetic reversals are linked to mass extinction events, arguing that reversals result in a temporary weakening or elimination of the planet’s magnetic field, allowing harmful radiation to penetrate the Earth’s surface. However, scientists have been able to confirm this conclusively due to a lack of concrete fossil evidence.
Another theory posits that mass extinction events are not linked to geomagnetic reversals directly, but the reversals cause increased volcanic activity, and the subsequent uptick in volcanic ash in the atmosphere causes the extinctions by reducing daylight across the globe. Neither of this theories can be definitively proven and geomagnetic reversals remain a topic of interest for the world scientific community.
While they have some overlapping functions, the Geographic and Magnetic North Poles are not the same thing. The Geographic North Pole is an unfixed geographical point marking the northernmost location on Earth, while the Magnetic North Pole is a constantly shifting pole of the planet’s magnetic field. Given the unpredictability of the Earth’s functions and the constant alterations in the planet’s magnetosphere, it is likely that the two North Poles will continue to diverge as the years continue. This is guaranteed to happen if the planet undergoes a geomagnetic reversal, which will cause many changes to the Earth’s surface.