Wheres North

Friday, January 7, 2011 - 1:41pm

Changes in the Earth's magnetic field forces pilots, airports to make changes.

The compass is becoming more and more inaccurate everyday. It's not a result of faulty manufacturing. It's because the North Pole itself is changing. The problem is so drastic, workers at Tampa International and Peter O. Knight airports are rushing to make changes.

When most people hear North Pole they think of Santa Claus. And while he'll always be at the very top of the world, USF Volcanologist Dr. Chris Connor says "there's also a magnetic pole, which is produced by fluctuations, flow of iron in the core of the earth."

Dr. Chris connor of USF explains that the constantly moving molten iron acts like a giant car alternator, creating magnetism on a planetary scale, with a magnetic North and South Pole.

Dr. Connor says "but over the last few decades, it's been moving and now it's moved all the way from northern Canada to northern Siberia."

Which means what your compass shows as north in tampa bay, isn't really north. And this is a problem for airports.

Robert Burr, Director of Operations at Tampa International Airport, says "when a pilot navigates, he needs to find the correct runway to takeoff on or land on, so he uses a compass in his cockpit to orient himself. That'll tell him that he's on the correct runway."

Robert Burr says runway "36" originally pointed due north to 360 degrees, or it did before the magnetic shift. Now it points just right at 10 degrees north, even though physically, it hasn't moved.

While the runway in question will always point to the geographic North Pole, since the magnetic north pole has shifted, pilots who use compasses may think they're in the wrong spot, unless this problem is corrected."

So TIA has resolved to paint new numbers to match those pilot compass readings. Runway "36" is now runway "1".

But this may only be a temporary fix. Several times per epoch, a million years, Earth's magnetic pole does a full flip. At first it becomes disorganized with new poles popping up in odd places like the Equator, bringing the green and red northern lights to the skies of Florida. When it's all done, polarity reverses where north becomes south. If this occurs, Canada would become the south pole. The last shift was over 700,000 years ago, leaving some to say we're due.

Dr. Connor says "some people have speculated that there's a shift beginning.”

Which may explain this recent fluctuation. But because our lifetimes are a blink of an eye in the geologic time scale, it's too soon to tell.

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