US agency invites boffins to locate magnetic north

North might not be where you think it is, but a project called MagQuest is giving problem solvers $1.2 million to help find it.

The issue has to do with the flow of liquid iron in the Earth’s core, which causes the planet’s magnetic north pole to move, by as much as 50 kilometres each year.

The World Magnetic Model (WMM) helps predict how magnetic north might fluctuate and allow devices such as cell phones and airplanes to work properly by accounting for the difference between magnetic and true north.

Normally the model is updated every five years, but an unexpected magnetic jerk occurred right after the 2015 model was released, requiring an additional out-of-cycle update before the 2020 recalibration.

Michael Paniccia is a Geodetic Earth Scientist at the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and the WMM program manager. He says that in the 1990s these shifts became less predictable, making out of cycle updates to the magnetic model more necessary.

An out-of-cycle update is essential for those using the model at 55 degrees north and above. In these locations, depending on carrier, smartphone compasses may be as much as one degree out of alignment. 

Measuring the Earth’s magnetic field has been an evolutionary process. Dutch trading ships used simple magnets, while today’s airplanes have evolved to using satellite technology. 

Paniccia says he hopes this project will lead to the next stage of that evolution, by inviting scientists and engineers around the world to submit proposals for funding to develop novel tools.

For those who might be able to help solve this problem of collecting data on a planetary scale, the NGA is awarding grant funding through a two-phase process.

Phase 1 seeks written concepts and ideas, and is open until May 16 this year, with up to 10 winners selected to share $200,000. Phase 2 will aim to put the projects into action and is expected to open in June 2019 and close in August. Up to five winners will be selected to share $1 million.

The project is open to international applicants. More details are available at

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