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Magnetic North Pole Shifts(Forces Runway Closures at Florida Airport)

By Jeremy A. Kaplan Published January 06, 2011   |

Tampa International Airport was forced to readjust its runways Thursday to account for the movement of the Earth's magnetic fields, information that pilots rely upon to navigate planes. Thanks to the fluctuations in the force, the airport has closed its primary runway until Jan. 13 to change taxiway signs to account for the shift, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The poles are generated by movements within the Earth's inner and outer cores, though the exact process isn't exactly understood. They're also constantly in flux, moving a few degrees every year, but the changes are almost never of such a magnitude that runways require adjusting, said Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the FAA.

The magnetic fields vary from place to place. Adjustments are needed now at airports in Tampa, but they aren't immediately required at all airports across the country.

So just how often is something like this necessary? "It happens so infrequently that they wouldn't venture a guess," Takemoto told "In fact, you're the first journalist to ever ask me about it."

Takemoto was quick to point out that the change, which also was required at Tampa's smaller Peter O. Knight airport, will have no effect on passenger safety.

"You want to be absolutely precise in your compass heading," he pointed out. "To make sure the precision is there that we need, you have to make these changes." 

Kathleen Bergen, another spokeswoman for the FAA, explained that runway designations and charting rely upon geomagnetic information. "Aviation is charted using latitude and longitude and the magnetic poles," she told

The busiest runway at Tampa International will be re-designated 19R/1L on aviation charts. It had been 18R/36L, indicating its alignment along the 180-degree approach from the north and the 360-degree approach from the south, explained an article in the Tampa Tribune detailing the changes. Later this month, the airport's east parallel runway and the seldom used east-west runway will be closed to change signs reflecting their new designations as well.

"The Earth's poles are changing constantly, and when they change more than three degrees, that can affect runway numbering," Bergen said.

While rejiggering the runways is a very extreme event, the fields are constantly in flux and constantly being remapped, explained Lorne McKee, a scientist with the geomagnetism division of Natural Resources Canada.

he explained. The field has swung from approximately 10 degrees east in the late 16th century to 25 degrees west in the early 19th century -- before returning to a current value of about 3 degrees west.

It wasn't immediately clear when or even if changes would be required at other airports. And even the rate of change is inconsistent, McKee said, noting that it's changing much more quickly at the poles themselves.

Beyond just sliding around the planet, the magnetic north and south poles have been known to completely flip as well; these reversals, recorded in the magnetism of ancient rocks, are unpredictable. The last one was 780,000 years ago. Are we overdue for another? No one knows.


Earth's Inconstant Magnetic Field
Our planet's magnetic field is in a constant state of change, say researchers who are beginning to understand how it behaves and why.

Every few years, scientist Larry Newitt of the Geological Survey of Canada goes hunting. He grabs his gloves, parka, a fancy compass, hops on a plane and flies out over the Canadian arctic. Not much stirs among the scattered islands and sea ice, but Newitt's prey is there--always moving, shifting, elusive.

The movement of Earth's north magnetic pole across the Canadian arctic, 1831-2001. Credit: Geological Survey of Canada.

His quarry is Earth's north magnetic pole.

At the moment it's located in northern Canada, about 600 km from the nearest town: Resolute Bay, population 300, where a popular T-shirt reads "Resolute Bay isn't the end of the world, but you can see it from here." Newitt stops there for snacks and supplies--and refuge when the weather gets bad. "Which is often," he says.

Right: The movement of Earth's north magnetic pole across the Canadian arctic, 1831--2001. Credit: Geological Survey of Canada. [More]

Scientists have long known that the magnetic pole moves. James Ross located the pole for the first time in 1831 after an exhausting arctic journey during which his ship got stuck in the ice for four years. No one returned until the next century. In 1904, Roald Amundsen found the pole again and discovered that it had moved--at least 50 km since the days of Ross.

The pole kept going during the 20th century, north at an average speed of 10 km per year, lately accelerating "to 40 km per year," says Newitt. At this rate it will exit North America and reach Siberia in a few decades.

Keeping track of the north magnetic pole is Newitt's job. "We usually go out and check its location once every few years," he says. "We'll have to make more trips now that it is moving so quickly."

Earth's magnetic field is changing in other ways, too: Compass needles in Africa, for instance, are drifting about 1 degree per decade. And globally the magnetic field has weakened 10% since the 19th century. When this was mentioned by researchers at a recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union, many newspapers carried the story. A typical headline: "Is Earth's magnetic field collapsing?"

Probably not. As remarkable as these changes sound, "they're mild compared to what Earth's magnetic field has done in the past," says University of California professor Gary Glatzmaier.

Magnetic stripes around mid-ocean ridges reveal the history of Earth's magnetic field for millions of years. The study of Earth's past magnetism is called paleomagnetism. Image credit: USGS.

Sometimes the field completely flips. The north and the south poles swap places. Such reversals, recorded in the magnetism of ancient rocks, are unpredictable. They come at irregular intervals averaging about 300,000 years; the last one was 780,000 years ago. Are we overdue for another? No one knows.

Above: Magnetic stripes around mid-ocean ridges reveal the history of Earth's magnetic field for millions of years. The study of Earth's past magnetism is called paleomagnetism. Image credit: USGS. [More]

According to Glatzmaier, the ongoing 10% decline doesn't mean that a reversal is imminent. "The field is increasing or decreasing all the time," he says. "We know this from studies of the paleomagnetic record." Earth's present-day magnetic field is, in fact, much stronger than normal. The dipole moment, a measure of the intensity of the magnetic field, is now 8 x 1022 amps x m2. That's twice the million-year average of 4 x 1022 amps x m2.

To understand what's happening, says Glatzmaier, we have to take a trip ... to the center of the Earth where the magnetic field is produced.

At the heart of our planet lies a solid iron ball, about as hot as the surface of the sun. Researchers call it "the inner core." It's really a world within a world. The inner core is 70% as wide as the moon. It spins at its own rate, as much as 0.2o of longitude per year faster than the Earth above it, and it has its own ocean: a very deep layer of liquid iron known as "the outer core."

A schematic diagram of Earth's interior. The outer core is the source of the geomagnetic field.

Right: a schematic diagram of Earth's interior. The outer core is the source of the geomagnetic field. [Larger image]

Earth's magnetic field comes from this ocean of iron, which is an electrically conducting fluid in constant motion. Sitting atop the hot inner core, the liquid outer core seethes and roils like water in a pan on a hot stove. The outer core also has "hurricanes"--whirlpools powered by the Coriolis forces of Earth's rotation. These complex motions generate our planet's magnetism through a process called the dynamo effect.

Using the equations of magnetohydrodynamics, a branch of physics dealing with conducting fluids and magnetic fields, Glatzmaier and colleague Paul Roberts have created a supercomputer model of Earth's interior. Their software heats the inner core, stirs the metallic ocean above it, then calculates the resulting magnetic field. They run their code for hundreds of thousands of simulated years and watch what happens.

What they see mimics the real Earth: The magnetic field waxes and wanes, poles drift and, occasionally, flip. Change is normal, they've learned. And no wonder. The source of the field, the outer core, is itself seething, swirling, turbulent. "It's chaotic down there," notes Glatzmaier. The changes we detect on our planet's surface are a sign of that inner chaos.

They've also learned what happens during a magnetic flip. Reversals take a few thousand years to complete, and during that time--contrary to popular belief--the magnetic field does not vanish. "It just gets more complicated," says Glatzmaier. Magnetic lines of force near Earth's surface become twisted and tangled, and magnetic poles pop up in unaccustomed places. A south magnetic pole might emerge over Africa, for instance, or a north pole over Tahiti. Weird. But it's still a planetary magnetic field, and it still protects us from space radiation and solar storms.

Supercomputer models of Earth's magnetic field. On the left is a normal dipolar magnetic field, typical of the long years between polarity reversals. On the right is the sort of complicated magnetic field Earth has during the upheaval of a reversal.

Above: Supercomputer models of Earth's magnetic field. On the left is a normal dipolar magnetic field, typical of the long years between polarity reversals. On the right is the sort of complicated magnetic field Earth has during the upheaval of a reversal. [More]

And, as a bonus, Tahiti could be a great place to see the Northern Lights. In such a time, Larry Newitt's job would be different. Instead of shivering in Resolute Bay, he could enjoy the warm South Pacific, hopping from island to island, hunting for magnetic poles while auroras danced overhead.

Sometimes, maybe, a little change can be a good thing.

More Information
The Geodynamo -- (Gary Glatzmaier) An overview of Earth's magnetic history and the physics of the geodynamo

The North Magnetic Pole -- (Geological Survey of Canada) find out where the north magnetic pole is now, and much more.

Magnetic Field of the Earth -- (Hyperphysics) an explanation of the dynamo effect

Core Concerns -- (Science News) The hidden reaches of Earth are starting to reveal some of their secrets.

Earth's North Magnetic Pole -- (APOD) The North Magnetic Pole is currently located in northern Canada.

Origin of the Earth's Magnetism -- (NASA) a history of ideas concerning Earth's magnetic dynamo
Feature Author: Dr. Tony Phillips
Feature Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips
Feature Production Credit: Science@NASA

Core Concerns

The hidden reaches of Earth are starting to reveal some of their secrets


Gary A. Glatzmaier gazed down on the world he had created and decided it was good. Peering deep into the bowels of the planet, he saw vast currents of molten iron alloy swirling at temperatures above 5,000 kelvins, nearly as hot as the surface of the sun. He watched for 40,000 years as the globe's magnetic field pulsated like the beating of a heart. Deeper still, at the center, he beheld a spinning orb made of solid iron almost as large as the moon.

This creation, forged from numbers and equations, is a virtual version of Earth's metallic core. Glatzmaier, a geophysicist at Los Alamos (N.M.) National Laboratory, constructed the extremely sophisticated computer model to simulate the magnetic dynamo that churns away, unseen, far below Earth's crust.

Five years ago, most geophysicists considered such representations poor stand-ins for the real core -- the scientific equivalent of a tone-deaf Elvis impersonator. In the last year, however, these models have earned newfound respect by showing striking similarities to the real thing. The simulation by Glatzmaier and his colleague Paul H. Roberts of the University of California, Los Angeles scored a major coup with its prediction that Earth's solid inner core spins out of sync with the rest of the planet -- a feature verified 3 months ago by seismologists (SN: 7/20/96, p. 36, Putting a New Spin on Earth's Core ).

Combined with recent advances in seismology, the computer models are opening windows into Earth's hitherto impenetrable iron heart. This new access gives scientists hope that they can finally tackle what Einstein reputedly called one of the five greatest unsolved problems in physics: the origin of the planet's magnetic field.

Although theorists have made great strides since Einstein offered that challenge, geomagnetists still lack a firm understanding of how the field forms and why it changes direction every few hundred thousand years or so. "The mechanisms behind the magnetic field and behind the reversals are still really mysterious. It's fair to say that this is one of the grand intellectual challenges -- not just in the earth sciences, but, I think, in all of the physical sciences," says Raymond Jeanloz, a geophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley.

A soft-spoken scientist most at home among his equations, Glatzmaier declines any comparison with the creator in Genesis. It's interesting to note, however, that Glatzmaier began his modeling work with the sun, only later moving on to model Earth.

Initially, Glatzmaier simulated the sun's magnetic field, which arises from the motion of ionized hydrogen and helium inside that star. The branch of physics governing this realm is called magnetohydrodynamics, a mouthful of a term that researchers often shorten to MHD.

After the sun, Glatzmaier studied Jupiter, the Kuwaiti oil fires, and Earth's rocky mantle before finally turning to Earth's core. The recent model -- a variation of the one developed for the sun -- simulates in three dimensions the currents of iron alloy flowing within the core.

The planet's nucleus is believed to have formed early in Earth's 4.5-billion-year history, when molten iron and other heavy elements sank deep into the planet. As this metallic soup cooled over the eons, crystals of iron froze at the center, creating a solid iron core inside the surrounding liquid alloy.

Over time, this process built an inner core 2,440 kilometers wide, about one-fifth the diameter of the planet. The outer core of liquid alloy spans 2,260 km from top to bottom and is composed of 90 percent iron and 10 percent lighter elements, possibly oxygen and sulfur.

The slow cooling of the core, which continues today, is critical because it stirs the iron alloy. Heat escaping from the top of the outer core chills the upper layers of the outer core, causing the material to sink. At the same time, iron crystals freeze and adhere to the surface of the inner core, leaving behind material richer in the lighter elements. This alloy floats to the surface of the outer core.

This movement of metallic fluids gave birth to Earth's geomagnetic field, according to MHD theory. Basic physics teaches that moving metals can produce an electric current if they pass through a preexisting magnetic field. This principle underlies most electric generators, which use heat to move turbines that carry wires past magnets.

If magnetic fields were common in the early solar system, as scientists believe, then convective flow in the outer core must have created electric currents in the fluid iron. The process turned into a self-sustaining dynamo, because electric currents produce their own magnetic fields. Once the core started producing a magnetic field, the continuous movement of the iron alloy would have maintained electric currents in the outer core, thereby sustaining the geomagnetic field.

Physicists had sketched out the general picture of this dynamo model by the late 1950s, but the details of what goes on in the outer core remain one of Earth's deepest secrets. What little is known about the outer core comes from the portion of the geomagnetic field that reaches Earth's surface. With its prominent north and south poles, this field is roughly dipolar in orientation, as if it came from a huge bar magnet buried inside the planet.

The simple exterior field -- the one that guides Boy and Girl Scouts, airliners, and migrating birds -- is but a tiny fraction of the magnetic field writhing within Earth's core. The portion one can sense at Earth's surface comes only from the uppermost layer of the outer core. The much more complex field generated deeper down is trapped inside the outer core and never reaches the planet's exterior.

In fact, much of the field created in the upper layer of the outer core also remains hidden. The toroidal portion of the field -- which runs in circular east-west bands within the outer core -- does not leak outside the core, so scientists cannot measure it. Only the poloidal element -- which loops from one pole around to the other pole -- extends to the planet's surface and into space.

While Earth conceals most of its field, a computer model is less bashful. That's why Glatzmaier and Roberts have attempted to create a virtual version of the geodynamo, which they run at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center and at Los Alamos. They started by specifying how quickly heat leaks out of the core, and then they let the MHD equations govern how the liquid alloy responds. The flow patterns, as they established themselves, generated electric currents and a magnetic field.

"The question I wanted to answer was whether convection in the fluid core could actually maintain the magnetic field -- a field that looks like the Earth's magnetic field," says Glatzmaier. "People had assumed it was happening that way, but it was never really demonstrated. What's encouraging is that I'm getting a magnetic field that looks a lot like Earth's in its strength and its structure."

The similarities extend beyond mere looks. The computer-fabricated field migrates slowly to the west in a manner similar to that of the actual field, whose features shift westward by roughly a degree each decade.

The model represents a step forward, says Glatzmaier, because in most previous attempts, researchers had prescribed the flow patterns rather than letting them evolve in response to the magnetic field. The earlier techniques used a short-cut that simplified the problem and guaranteed a realistic outcome -- as if the tone-deaf Elvis impersonator only lip-synced instead of actually singing.

"The less you specify in the model, the more you are able to learn. If you specify everything, you can get something that looks just like the Earth, but you will not understand why things happen because you have specified the solution," says Glatzmaier.

Glatzmaier and Roberts let their model run through millennia of simulated time, watching the magnetic field wither and then rebound, all the while remaining dipolar. About 35,000 years into the simulation (and after more than a year of real time), the dipolar field nearly disappeared. For 1,000 virtual years the field languished, with a confusing multitude of magnetic poles popping up instead of fixed north and south poles. When the field eventually recuperated, it was pointing in the opposite direction.

Here was a real triumph for Glatzmaier and Roberts. Their MHD model had produced a geomagnetic reversal entirely on its own, without any provocation from the experimenters.

"Our original motivation was not to simulate magnetic field reversals. That seemed too much to hope for. So that was a nice surprise," says Glatzmaier.

As the world turns over: In this computer simulation, the magnetic field emanating from the core flipped upside down. Before the reversal, poloidal magnetic field lines leave the north magnetic pole, curve around the planet, and dive back into the south pole (left). During the transition, the field becomes disorganized (middle) for roughly 1,000 years and then reestablishes itself with the opposite polarity (right). Lines wrapping around the core in east-west bands indicate the toroidal magnetic field.

The two researchers published their reversal data in the Sept. 21, 1995 Nature. Although the model simulations have continued, with one now exceeding 200,000 years in duration, Glatzmaier and Roberts have not witnessed a second reversal.

That may be a good sign, since reversals of the actual geomagnetic field usually occur only once every few hundred thousand years and occasionally much less frequently. Still, with only one reversal under their belts, the scientists cannot yet draw many conclusions about what causes the process.

The MHD model garnered even more attention last July, when two seismologists reported that the solid inner core of the actual Earth is spinning faster than the rest of the planet. Xiaodong Song and Paul G. Richards of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y., who made the discovery, credited the MHD model for stimulating their search.

Glatzmaier and Roberts had predicted the core's quick spin last year, after studying the flow patterns of the iron alloy within their model. The simulation revealed eastward-moving currents of fluid at the bottom of the outer core, roughly analogous to the jet streams in the atmosphere. These currents in the outer core, the scientists realized, would put a magnetic torque on the inner core, forcing it to spin slightly faster than the mantle and crust.

One of Glatzmaier and Roberts' chief competitors, Jeremy Bloxham of Harvard University, has documented a similar torque within his MHD model of the core. In the Harvard simulations, which began more recently than the Los Alamos work, the core spins faster than the rest of the planet on average, but it slows down for brief periods. "I wouldn't be surprised if the rate changes with time," says Bloxham.

There may, however, be explanations besides magnetic torque for the core's fast spin. Berkeley's Jeanloz notes that the rotation rate of the entire Earth is slowing as a result of the friction caused by lunar and solar tides. The deceleration of the inner core, however, may lag behind that of the rest of the planet because the inner core is separated from the mantle and crust by the fluid outer core. According to this theory, the inner core is now rotating as quickly as Earth's surface was spinning 60,000 to 100,000 years ago.

"We may be able to distinguish if one or the other of these ideas is correct over the coming decades, if not years," says Jeanloz. If magnetic torques are causing the discrepancy, seismologists monitoring the inner core should see the rotation rate vary with time. If the slowdown of Earth is to blame, then the rotation rate should change little except for an extremely slow deceleration. Both of these mechanisms may work together, says Jeanloz.

As seismologists continue to refine ways of detecting the inner core's rotation, Glatzmaier, Roberts, and others work on improving the MHD models of the core. At present, the models take shortcuts in simulating fluid flow in the core. Because of computer limitations, MHD models treat the iron alloy as being orders of magnitude more viscous than the actual liquid core, which scientists think flows about as easily as water. "We're hoping we're not doing too much harm by making this approximation," says Glatzmaier.

These and other limitations had led many geophysicists to disregard MHD models. The recent successes, however, have quieted critics and forced them to start taking the models seriously.

"The types of numerical calculations being done today are just beginning to provide us with a set of tools that we need to understand how the geodynamo works," says Bloxham. "There is just an enormous amount of work that we need to do. But I think it's a very exciting time."

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