How the shift in magnetic north affects your flying

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Money is now and will be a major subject in the federal government for months to come as attempts are made to resolve at least some of the financial issues of the deficit, meaning general aviation has a direct interest in attempts to pass a long-term FAA reauthorization bill, as well as aviation’s place in the President’s proposed budget for 2012.

To keep from becoming overwhelmed with minutia money matters and how they affect our flying, here is another subject: Magnetic north. Runway numbers, charts, navigation systems, and anything demanding precise positioning are changing and costing the aviation and marine industries many, many thousands of dollars. (There’s that money issue again.)

All this is because magnetic north is shifting its position at a rate of about 40 miles a year. At the beginning of the last century, the shift was only about nine miles a year. The shift is moving the magnetic pole northwest, from its early location from down in Northern Canada towards Siberia. It is now over the Arctic Ocean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The magnetic pole also is about 15% weaker now than it was in 1831 when discovered by a British explorer.

Airport runway numbers are evaluated every five years, Kathleen Bergan, FAA spokesperson, told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. The current shift of about 40 miles a year creates a 1° difference in compass direction every five years. Over the years, that means you could wind up one or several degrees off — which translates to a few or even hundreds of miles — depending on the length of flight. That gives pilots an additional — and important — reason for using up-to-date charts and making sure equipment is properly calibrated.

The Sun-Sentinel reports Palm Beach International Airport (PBI) changed three runway numbers near the end of 2009. The main east-west runway was 9-Left and 27-Right. It now is 10-Left and 26-Right. Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport (FLL) plans to renumber its south runway as part of its expansion in three years.

More rapid shifting of magnetic north in recent years has given rise to speculation, myths, and “sky is falling” warnings. There are some reports that the change is causing super storms all over the world, predictions of the date the world will end, global warming, and even mental illness.

None of these have any basis of fact, according to recognized experts. Some speculators even say the speed-up is the beginning of the north and south poles shifting places as they did centuries ago. But this should not be a concern for pilots. The last time the poles shifted was about three quarters of a million years ago, according to some estimates.

The center of the Earth is hot liquid and constantly shifting, according to the U.S. Geological Survey Geomagnetism Program. This means the magnetic pole is going to be constantly shifting.

So, enjoy your flying. Just stay current.


  1. Sheldon says

    Can you please site the reference to your statement “The magnetic pole also is about 15% weaker now than it was in 1831 when discovered by a British explorer.” It appears that this statement may only be your opinion.

  2. says

    This is amazing stuff! I have no idea what other influences this phenom has on anything else, but the Wx here in sunny Calif. is Snow in the foothills at 1000 ft., followed by spring like conditions tomorrow. Temps ranging from 30*F to the mid to high 60’s in the span of a day.
    b. mcd

  3. Miami Mike says

    I have six different instruments and systems in my airplane that tell me where I’m going, and they all disagree. Furthermore, when my wife is along, her vote trumps all of them combined. Nevertheless, I am going to be prepared, one of the parts vendors has a clearance sale on southern hemisphere compasses (yes, there really is such a thing!) and I’m going to buy one and put it on my shelf so when the poles finally do swap in 3055 (or so), I’ll be ready.

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