Magnetic north isn’t even close to where it used to be

You won't notice much of a difference unless you're north of the 55th parallel, though.

  • Magnetic north has recently been moving north from Canada to Russia in a cold hurry.
  • It's moving about 33 miles a year instead of the usual 7 miles.
  • World navigation models had to updated ahead of schedule to catch up with it.

If you're reading this as you travel the arctic, odds are you're probably already a bit confused. Your compass has been, well, strange, lately. That's because magnetic north has been moving. Quickly. It's never been stationary, but recently it's been moving around 485 feet northward toward Siberia every day. That's about 33 miles per year, as opposed to the average 7 miles a year between 1831 and the 1990s, when its pace quickened.

Fortunately, experts say that if you're south of the 55th parallel, you won't notice much of a difference. However, for national defense agencies, commercial airlines, and others that rely on knowing what their compasses are pointing at, it's a much bigger deal. That's why the World Magnetic Model — a set of online reference calculators, software, and technical details — had to be updated recently ahead of schedule instead of waiting for the next planned revision in 2020.

North, north, and north

Image source: Pyty / Shutterstock

There are actually three flavors of north, and they're all in different places.

  • Magnetic north — is defined as the location on the Earth's surface where all of its magnetic lines point straight downward. If you look at a compass while you're there, the needle attempts to dip down; that's why it's also called the "dip pole." Magnetic north is always on the move in response to the constant motion of electrical charges in the Earth's liquid outer mantle, which produces Earth's magnetic field.
  • Geomagnetic north — is the northern focus of the Earth's magnetosphere, up in the stratosphere. It moves, too, but not nearly as much, since shifts in the Earth's magnetic field are more smoothed-out up there than on the ground. Its location is pretty stable, located above and off the northwest coast of Greenland.
  • True north, or geographic north — is the northern terminus of our lines of longitude. It's located in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

What’s the hurry?

Image source: Johan Swanepoel / Shutterstock

The suddenly accelerating movement of magnetic north has scientists wondering what's up — not because there's any danger we're aware of — because its behavior is one of the few opportunities they have to catch a glimpse of the dynamics inside the earth's molten outer core.

The most prominent theory is that the speed-up is being driven by, as Nature puts it, "liquid iron sloshing within the planet's core." Giant streams of molten iron and nickel continually twist and swirl in the outer core, a pressure cooker that can reach 9,000° F in temperature. The iron is the source of the magnetic fields that comprise the Earth's magnetosphere. The magnetosphere is the barrier that keeps us protected from destructive ultraviolet solar radiation — its existence keeps Earth habitable. Planets with no magnetic barrier are unable to hold onto their atmosphere. Mars lost its magnetosphere 4.2 billion years ago.

Geophysicist Phil Livermore made the case at an American Geophysical Union meeting in Fall 2018 that what we're seeing is the latest action in an ongoing tug of war between two magnetic fields down in the swirling outer core. One is under Siberia, and one is under Canada. Historically, the Canadian field has been winning, keeping magnetic north in Canada. However, there's been a shift, he tells National Geographic, "The Siberian patch looks like it's winning the battle. It's sort of pulling the magnetic field all the way across to its side of the geographic pole."

Some scientists think that the acceleration may be an early sign that Earth's magnetic poles are about to flip, something that happens every every 200,000 to 300,000 years. Others see no evidence of that. Plus, flips occur over thousands of years, so there'd be no cause for alarm anyway.

Keeping an eye on magnetic north

Earth's magnetic lithosphere mapped by Swarm. Image source: ESA

The position of magnetic north is tracked by the European Space Agency's three Swarm satellites orbiting the Earth about 15 times a day — the satellites' readings are continually checked against ground readings to assess the pole's movements. Every five years, until now, at least, scientists have updated the math in the World Magnetic Model, whose goal is to "ensure safe navigation for military applications, commercial airlines, search and rescue operations, and others operating around the North Pole."

Given how things like this tend to play out over geologic time, it would surprise no one if more frequent model updates will be needed going forward.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.