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Our Moving Magnetic Field

The Earth's magnetic field moves around. Right now, the north magnetic pole is in Canada, near Resort Bay (population 300), where you can buy a tee shirt saying, "Resolute Bay isn't the end of the world, but you can see it from here." Soon it will leave North America and head for Siberia. And lately, it's started moving much faster.

In 1831, James Ross located magnetic north. When Roald Amundsen returned to the same spot in 1904, he found it had moved 30 miles. Once scientists found that the pole moved about 6 miles per year, but lately it has accelerated to around 25 miles per year. Researcher Larry Newitt says, "We usually go out and check its location once every few years. We'll have to make more trips now that it is moving so quickly."

The entire magnetic field of the Earth has gotten about 10% weaker in the last 100 years, as the Earth's poles are probably getting ready to flip. This reversal happens about every 300,000 years, so we're overdue for another?the last one occurred 780,000 years ago.

However, "We can have periods without reversals for many millions of years, and we can have four or five reversals within one million years," says researcher Yves Gallet. Reversals take a few thousand years to complete, and during the changeover, the magnetic field does not disappear, but it does get much weaker. "It just gets more complicated," says researcher Gary Glatzmaier. Magnetic poles pop up in odd places and Northern Lights can be seen in unusual areas. During the recent solar storms, Northern Lights were seen in 49 of the 50 U.S. states.

Since pole reversals take place gradually, birds, which use the magnetic field for migration, will probably have time to get used to the change. "They'd go through many generations in the period in which the field was entering the phase of reversal," says physicist Jeremy Bloxham. "Presumably they would learn new behavior patterns to accommodate it."

What will the future bring? Find out how Nostradamus predicted the future on this week's Dreamland.Subscribers can hear John Hogue's New Year?s predictions for 2004, and non-subscribers can listen to the first 10 minutes of the interview by clicking "Listen Now" on our masthead.

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