Earth is far from alone in having a magnetic field, protecting our planet from brutal cosmic radiation. This invisible force is also responsible for the northern and southern lights – stunning events seen near Earth’s magnetic poles. However, reports of Earth’s magnetic north pole migrating at 50km per year has led some to fear it could cause the northern lights to vanish.
Earth’s magnetic field offers many advantages from navigation for humans and animal alike to protecting life on Earth from the perils of space.
Earth’s magnetic field extends hundreds of thousands of miles out from the centre of our planet.
And this field even extends into interplanetary space, forming what is known as a “magnetosphere”.
This invisible shield deflects deadly solar radiation and cosmic rays, crucial in preventing the destruction of Earth’s atmosphere.
However this protective bubble is not perfect, allowing some solar matter and energy into our magnetosphere.
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And after it is then pushed into the poles by the magnetic field, it results in northern lights’ spectacular show.
Earth’s magnetic field is formed by its moving, molten iron core, meaning its poles are in flux.
In fact, since its first formal discovery in 1831, the north magnetic pole has travelled over 1,240 miles (2,000km) from Canada’s far north to as far as the Arctic Sea.
This itinerant force is historically quite slow, travelling around 5.5 miles (9km) a year, allowing scientists to easily keep track of its position.
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However, since the turn of the century, this has accelerated to 31 miles (50km) annually.
Meanwhile the south magnetic pole is also moving, though at a far slower rate 6-12 miles a year (10-15km).
This rapid wandering is causing some problems for both scientists and navigators alike.
Models locating the north magnetic pole are already outdated, making accurate navigation difficult.
And although GPS does work, it can sometimes be unreliable in the polar regions.
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Could the northern lights disappear?
The northern lights are currently mostly visible from northern Europe, Canada and the northern US.
If, however, they shifted north, following the north magnetic pole, this could well change.
The northern lights would instead become more visible from Siberia and northern Russia and less visible from the much more densely populated US and Canadian border.
Fortunately, for those aurora hunters in the northern hemisphere, it seems as though this might not actually be the case.
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A recent study based on data dating back to 1965 indicates the aurora generally follows the “geomagnetic poles”.
The poles have even bee known to occasionally flip over, with north becoming south and south becoming north.
These magnetic reversals have occurred throughout history, every 450,000 years or so on average.
The last reversal occurred 780,000 years ago, meaning we could be due a reversal soon.