Journey to the magnetic poles of the earth

The planet has four poles: the two geographic, which determine the axis of rotation, and the two magnetic, where the magnetic field becomes vertical and the compass stops working.

Sometime during the Han Dynasty of China, between the 2nd century B.C. Between 300 and 300 BC and the 3rd century AD, someone discovered that a special type of iron needle that floats on water always points north. This invention revolutionized navigation on both land and sea, as it provided a reliable method of determining direction and orientation, essential for trade and empire expansion.

This discovery was possible because the earth is a giant magnet. The Earth’s magnetic field originates in the planet’s liquid iron core, where extreme heat and pressure create electrical currents. This process is called the “geodynamic dynamo” and is responsible for the generation of the earth’s magnetic field and for the functioning of compasses.

However, there are two places on earth where compasses no longer work: the magnetic poles.

The four poles of the earth

The earth has two types of poles: the geographic poles and the magnetic poles. The geographic poles are the points where the Earth’s axis of rotation intersects its surface, and they are the points about which the Earth rotates.

The magnetic poles, on the other hand, are the areas of the earth’s surface where the earth’s magnetic field is strongest and most vertical. However, the magnetic poles do not coincide with the geographic poles. In addition, the position of the magnetic poles is not fixed and changes over time. The magnetic north pole is not at the true north pole and neither is the magnetic south pole nor the true south pole.

The magnetic north pole is located somewhere in the Canadian Arctic and is constantly moving west at a rate of several kilometers per year. The South Magnetic Pole is in the Southern Ocean near the coast of Antarctica and is also moving.

What happens at the magnetic poles is that they are the points where the earth’s magnetic field lines emerge from the surface and are most perpendicular to the ground. These areas are of great importance for navigation and many activities that rely on the compass because the compass needle points in the direction of the earth’s magnetic field. However, due to the variability and movement of magnetic poles, navigators and compass users must account for these variations and adjust their calculations as necessary.

magnetic north pole

Image: Cavit. Observed pole positions from Newitt et al., Earth Planets Space, 61, 703–710, 2009, modeled pole positions from National Geophysical Data Center, Wandering the Geomagnetic Poles. Map created with GMT, CC BY 4.0,

At the Earth’s magnetic poles, compasses can behave unusually, the needle can become very unstable and its behavior can be unpredictable, wobbling and rotating instead of pointing in a constant direction.

Journey to the magnetic poles

Travel to regions near the Earth’s magnetic poles is possible, however it should be noted that these areas are often remote and can pose logistical challenges due to extreme weather conditions and lack of infrastructure. Several tourist and scientific expeditions take place near the magnetic poles, both in the Arctic and in Antarctica.

In the case of the magnetic north pole, the expeditions mostly take place in the Canadian Arctic or the Russian Arctic. Some companies offer cruises and dog sled expeditions that bring travelers close to the magnetic North Pole region. However, due to ever-changing ice conditions and variability in pole position, it can be difficult to get to the exact point of magnetic north.

In the case of the South Magnetic Pole, the expeditions are usually conducted in the Southern Ocean region near Antarctica. The lack of dry land near the magnetic south pole can make access difficult, and expeditions are usually conducted by specialized vessels and vehicles.

The first team of individuals to reach the magnetic north pole did so in 1996, led by David Hempleman-Adams. Among them were the first Brit Sue Stockdale and the first Swede to reach the Pole. On behalf of the University of Ottawa, the team also successfully tracked the position of the magnetic north pole and confirmed its position using magnetometer and theodolite at 78°35′42″N 104°11′54″W.

In addition, the Polar Race was a biannual competition that ran from 2003 to 2011. It took place between the community of Resolute on the coast of Resolute Bay, Nunavut, in northern Canada and the location of the 1996 magnetic north pole at 78° 35′42″N 104°11′54″W, also in northern Canada.

More recently, in 2007, Top Gear and its hosts claimed they were the first people in history to travel to the North Magnetic Pole site in northern Canada, in 1996. What happened then was that the magnetic pole had moved several hundred kilometers further north from its position in 1996.

We must not forget that the magnetic poles also play a crucial role in protecting the Earth from the solar wind and charged particles from space. The Earth’s magnetic field, created by the movement of liquid iron in Earth’s outer core, acts as a protective shield, deflecting many of these harmful particles around the planet, protecting life on Earth from harmful radiation.

Quo Science Trips section sponsored by Hyundai

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