We live in a mysterious universe where nothing is certain and we literally don't even know why the collection of cells we call our physical bodies gained sentience in the first place. But despite the permanent existential crisis, there are a few constants that we can thankfully rely on. Like, for instance: up is up, down is down, the north pole is north, and... nope, actually, we can't rely on that last bit. Surprise! If you've used a compass in the past 12 months and noticed that it was acting a little buggy, turns out there was a reason for that: Earth's magnetic poles are shifting, meaning that magnetic north and magnetic south (what compasses are affected by) are not in the same place they were a year ago. And though this is a totally normal event — the magnetic poles are constantly moving around based on pull from two different magnetic hotspots within the Earth) — what's not normal is how fast it's happening. According to researchers, Earth's magnetic north pole is shifting east at a mysteriously rapid rate, leading some to wonder if this is indication that the magnetic north and south poles may be gearing to begin reversing sometime soon.
So, what does this even mean? Again, the magnetic poles have apparently always been a little shifty and they move around on a regular basis — magnetic north moves a little more than magnetic south does, but that's only due to surges within the earth's outer liquid core. So, scientists expect movement and have been tracking the geomagnetic north's position for more than a century. Normal! What stands out now is the unusually rapid and unpredictable rate at which the magnetic north pole moving: Currently, it's located somewhere in the Arctic ocean off the coast of Canada, but according to the Guardian, it's speeding pretty quickly toward Russia. Though the poles are expected to move, their points aren't usually measured more than once every five years — but due to the poles' rapid movement recently, geophysicists were forced to update records much sooner than expected. So, if you were to look at a compass today facing 0º north, then compare it to 0º north a year ago, it would be slightly different.
Now, all of this isn't to say that what we know to be north is no longer north. To give you a lil' scientific background, there are actually three points on the globe that are designated north poles: There's the northern planetary axis point, which is the top of where Earth spins on its axis as it rotates around the Sun, there is the geomagnetic north pole, commonly known as geographic north (i.e., what you see on maps as north), and then there's the magnetic north pole, which is what we're talking about. This is the point that compasses identify as north and it's what's used in the calibration of the World Magnetic Model (WMM), so it's necessary for anything that concerns finding directions — including the codes in your phone's compass. (GPS systems, on the other hand, work off geomagnetic pole positions, so it shouldn't be affected all that much).
Because we know that this north pole changes position regularly, the WMM is updated every five years, just to ensure that directional utilities stay accurate. We apparently weren't due for an update until 2020, but by 2018, it was reported that scientists concluded they would need to update the system early due to the unusually fast pace at which this point was changing.
But this isn't just some theoretically bizarro science thing — it's actually a serious safety issue for anyone who must navigate their way around the great northern region. "If GPS systems fail, pilots on planes and ships fall back on compass navigation and so need up-to-date maps on their onboard computers," reported the Guardian. "But below the northern tip of Scotland, at latitudes lower than about 55 degrees, the pole’s recent movement does not make a drastic difference." So basically, unless you're driving around the Arctic, you probably can't blame the shifting poles for any recent Google Maps malfunctions of your own.
And while these recent shifts are unlikely to have affected your life directly, it does beg the question of whether it's indication that Earth is hurtling toward its first pole reversal since even before homo sapiens began walking the Earth. Because, according to reports, it's not a matter of if there will be a magnetic pole switch — it's just a matter of when. "At the moment, Earth’s magnetic field is growing steadily weaker, leading scientists to think it will eventually flip, with the north and south poles changing places like a bar magnet flipping over," explained the Guardian. "Researchers know from traces left if rocks that this has happened before, but not in the past 780,000 years." Um, yikes? Reading this information is givin' ya girl some high grade anxiety — because what the hell happens to us if the poles flip? Is it survivable? Are we talking apocalypse? Will my iPhone still work?
Well, it's apparently hard to say, given that this phenomenon hasn't taken place in any of our or our recent ancestors' lifetimes (the last time it happened about 780,000 years ago, humankind's ancestor species Australopithecus were around). But what is fairly certain is that this is a process that will take hundreds if not thousands of years, so TBH, none of us truly have to worry about it. And as far as scientists' predictions go, because the shift will happen over a long period of time, our down-the-line ancestors will probably be OK, too — so rest easy, friends.
The poles may be shifting and our crystal balls may be showing a less-than-clear image of the future, but this won't be the apocalypse that takes us down. So long as the poles' positions remain updated, we'll all be OK — in the near and far future.