Movies, picture books, and Christmas carols have all contributed to popular ideas of the North Pole—at least as it would look to Santa and his elves. Children imagine a frozen wonderland, with towering ice crystals surrounding a cozy and cheerful house and charming factory where toys are built and reindeer prepare for their annual flight. This is North Pole of magic and wonder, of sugarplum dreams and stockings hung by the chimney with care.
A more rigorously scientific approach reveals a North Pole that’s definitely icy, but probably wouldn’t be much fun to visit. Considered the geographic or terrestrial North Pole, it’s the point on the globe from which it’s impossible to walk any farther north. Any step took would take you south. This is the uppermost point of an imaginary line drawn straight through the center of the Earth, an axis around which the planet rotates.
But even that isn’t 100 percent complete picture, since the physical North Pole and the magnetic North Pole aren’t the same thing. To fans of orienteering, the North Pole conjures a very different image—one that involves invisible but nevertheless very real magnetic forces that impact delicate instruments, even when they’re half a world away. When a compass points north, it’s not showing the way to the top of the world; it’s aligning itself with the pull from the pole.
And that North Pole—the magnetic one—is on the move.
While the magnetic pole has meandered around Canada’s frozen upper boundaries since the 1800s, it now seems to be making its way toward Siberia (another ice-locked region that may come to mind when thinking of Santa’s home). Its path is set deep beneath the crust, where a rotating ball of liquid iron generates its own storm-like swirls that create the forces that impact the surface in a variety of ways, including by protecting us from solar storms and by pushing and pulling magnetized needles used in navigation.
The fact that the magnetic North Pole is wandering might tip you off to the reality that nothing’s keeping it from continuing on its merry way indefinitely. In fact, scientists studying magnetism in rocks and changes in the strength of the Earth’s magnetic fields have discovered that the poles have been known to flip, switching their places at opposite ends of the planet every so often. Such a swap isn’t necessarily imminent, but with forces so massive and immovable by human effort, who knows? We could be thousands of years away from such a global re-arrangement. Or not.
In the meantime, all we do know is that the magnetic pole is shifting, sometimes at speeds of up to 40 miles a year.
So when you hear the term “North Pole,” which do you think of: the ever-moving centerpoint of magnetic activity, the geographic top of the Earth, or the fantastically populated home base for Santa and his crew?
How about all three? There’s no reason one North Pole has to crowd the others out in your mind or heart.