Magnetic North vs Geographic (True) North Pole

Compass Direction
Compass Direction

Last Updated: Jan 24, 2017 @ 5:00 am

The Story of the Explorer’s Compass

Imagine. You are an explorer standing exactly on the North Pole.

It’s been a long journey and it’s freezing cold.

You pull out your compass.

What direction would the needle on the compass point?

The answer may not be what you think.

In order to answer this question, you will have to understand the difference between the true geographic north and magnetic north.

Because these two north locations are completely different.

What is the Geographic (True) North Pole?

Lines of Longitude

The Earth rotates on the geographic north and south poles. The geographic north and south poles are where lines of longitude (meridians) converge in the north. The south and north pole are directly opposite to one another.

The North Pole is located in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. Scientists have tried marking the North pole. Because the water here is permanently covered with moving sea ice, it’s practically impossible to construct any type of permanent station at the true North Pole.

On the other side of the Earth, the South Pole lies on a continental land mass known as Antarctica. Because the ice on top of Antarctica moves only a few meters a year, the United States Antarctica program has installed a marker here to delineate the true South Pole.

READ MORE: 5 Maps That Explain the Arctic

What is the Magnetic North Pole?

The Earth is one big magnet.

The Magnetic North Pole (also known as the North Dip Pole) is a point on Ellesmere Island in Northern Canada where the northern lines of attraction enter the Earth.

A compass needle rests freely in its casing so it can maneuver itself. When you pull out a compass, it aligns itself with the Earth’s magnetic field. The small magnetic pin is how a compass responds to Earth’s magnetism.

This means that a compass needle will point to the Magnetic North Pole – which is different from the geographic north.

But how much of a difference is the magnetic north vs geographic north?

Earth Magnetic Field
Earth’s Magnetic Field

Where are the Magnetic North Pole and Geographic North Pole?

Magnetic North Pole

The question is:

Where would a compass needle point if you were standing on the true North Pole?

If you were standing on the geographic north pole holding your compass, it would point towards northern Canada at Ellesmere Island. This is a difference of about 500 kilometers between the Geographic North and Magnetic North poles!

This difference is called the magnetic inclination. Magnetic deviation is the error of a compass needle including nearby metallic objects.

Magnetic inclination varies according to where you are located on the globe. In order to point you in the right directions, users can compensate for magnetic inclination by using charts of declination or local calibration.

The difference today is about 500 kilometers. But the Magnetic North Pole is actually moving kilometers every year. This phenomenon is known as the Polar Shift Theory.

Polar Shift Theory: Earth’s Ever-Changing Magnetic North Pole

Magnetic North Shift
Magnetic North Shift (Image courtesy of NOAA)

The world we live on is dynamic. Earth is changing every day.

Plate tectonics push continents apart, sea levels fluctuate up and down, volcanoes erupt discharging ash and smoke…

These are examples of natural phenomena that occur in cycles and are dynamic on our planet. The location of our magnetic north is really no different.

Over the last 150 years, the magnetic pole has crept north over 1000 kilometers. Scientists suggest it migrates about 10 kilometers per year and can even flip from pole-to-pole. Lately, the speed has accelerated to about 40 kilometers per year and could reach Siberia in a few decades.

NOAA’s historical declination map shows lines of constant magnetic declination (isogonic lines). Isogonic lines are an indication for what direction compass needles will point – along the lines of magnetic force.

Polar Reversals: South-Pole Pointing Compass

Imagine your compass pointing south instead of north.


If you were alive to see it 800,000 years ago, it would have been the Magnetic South Pole.

It takes 200,000 to 300,000 years for Earth’s magnetic field to flip polarity. Flipping polarity means the lines of attraction that enter the Earth would flip north to south pole, or vice versa.

This means that it has been twice that long since the last reversal. Some believe we are long overdue for a pole reversal.

But there’s really no need to panic:

NASA scientists say a reversal happens over hundreds or thousands of years. It’s not exactly a clean back flip that happens like a flick of a switch.

Why Does the Earth Have a Magnetic Field in the First Place?

Earth Core

Geophysicists believe Earth’s magnetic fields presence is because of what the Earth is made up of.

The Earth consists of a solid iron core. Surrounding the iron core is an ocean of hot, liquid metal. The liquid metal that flows in Earth’s core creates electrical currents, which in turn creates our magnetic field.

Unlike a solid fridge magnet, the liquid metal surrounding the inner core moves freely. This explains why the magnetic pole can migrate.

Although geophysicists cannot measure the inner core directly, this is why there is a strong belief that the matter governing Earth’s magnetic field moves around.

Magnets, Compasses and North Bearings

The Geographic North Pole differs from the Magnetic North Pole by about 500 kilometers.

The Geographic North Pole is where lines of longitudes converge into what we call the North Pole. The Magnetic Pole is a point in Northern Canada where the northern lines of attraction enter the Earth.

A compass needle will point to the direction of the Magnetic North Pole. But this doesn’t mean that a compass always points to the Geographic North Pole. This difference is magnetic inclination.

The Earth’s magnetic north is changing every day because of the hot, liquid metal that surrounds the inner core. It can change so much that the Earth’s magnetic field can flip polarity. This is called the Polar Reversal Theory.

Next time you’re out in the woods with your compass, don’t forget about the small magnetic pin that moves freely in the direction of the Magnetic North Pole.

READ MORE: Magnetic Declination QGIS Plugin


  1. When was this article written? It is using very outdated images. It is showing 2007 at the last verified magnetic north location. With the number of things like the thousands of planes in the air at any given time I would think a verified magnetic north point would be simple. What is the latest verified magnetic north location? What is the daily variation?

  2. “the Magnetic North Pole is actually moving kilometers every year. This phenomenon is known as the Polar Shift Theory”

    No, I don’t think so. You don’t use the word ‘theory’ to describe an observed phenomenon. ‘Magnetic polar wander’ would be much closer to the mark.

  3. The geographic north pole mark the end of the axis
    The magnetic north pole is near but does not reach the axis

  4. H.Laldinmawia – Depending on which country you live, you either subtract or add the magnetic variation if you are using a compass.

  5. Hello,
    I believe “theory” is the scientific term for our knowledge of a subject at the current moment. The term “hypothesis” is used for scientific guesses still to be proven.
    Thanks. Yours, Josie

  6. This is part bunkum. A magnetic compass most certainly does NOT POINT to the ‘magnetic north pole’. Any reasonably accurate mapping of the geomagnetic field shows lines of force (along which a magnetic needle will align itself), and they wander about creating patterns significantly different from longitude – like lines. This is rather elementary.

  7. True, the earth’s mag. field is not a perfect bar magnet. There is much more variation in the field at other, smaller scales, including areas where North and South change by > 45 degrees over < 100 km in Australia. Plus, there is reason to think the strong North / South dipole changes to a weak four pole (tetrahedron) field in between field reversals. – Randal O.

  8. I’d like to add some thoughts from own experience. I am a Finn who did a lot of compass & map navigation in my youth, at sea and in the forests in scouting and the army. We experience this phenomenon enough for it to be relevant to naviation. So a few points to help clarify.

    First, the effect of the deviance is only significant in a few parts of the world where you might experience it. If you look at the image on the page here, that has the two points, then you can see, that if someone stands in Northern Greenland, and uses a compass to determine ‘where is North’ the direction that the compass shows – is literally EXACT SOUTH. And to get to the real North pole, from that location with that magnetic compass indication, you would need to travel EXACTLY EAST.

    So in VERY Northern (or very Southern) parts of the planet, the distortion to the compass can be dramatic. Now Finland is the Northernmost country on the planet (when countries are compared measuring their geographic midpoints) so as a nation, we are ‘most affected’ by this in terms of distance from the actual North Pole (if Greenland becomes Independent as Kalaalit Nunaat then it would assume this honor from Finland as the Northernmost country). But even in Finland, the typical error for a compass pointing North, and True North is something like 6% to 11% depending on where you are in FInland (effect is strongest in the North, weakest in the South). Now how many people live on the islands of Canada, or in Alaska, or in Norway, Sweden, Finland; in Northern areas of Russia, in Iceland, on the Northernmost island of Japan (Hokkaido) or yes the Greenland province of Denmark? If we say 100 million people that may be roughly the ball park (nobody lives on Antarctica, where the same phenomenon would also exist). But of the planet’s 7.5 Billion people that is a bit over 1% of all humans.

    For the other 99% this will not really matter, except for the couple of Arctic fanatics who may want to explore the North (or South) Pole haha. And note, Finland has this effect in an exceptionally great degree, and even with us, the compass is ‘off’ by only under 10 degrees in typical situations (a compass dial has 360 degress so that is about 3% error).

    We learn about this in school and we learn about it a lot if we get involved in compasses and mapping and navigation if in boating or scouting or any other navigation needs in Finland, plus of course we learn about this in the army (all Finnish men have to serve a year in the military). It is a real phenomenon but like I said, it only impacts the extreme Northern and Southern parts of the planet. It ALSO has a relevance limit by the East/West area. WITHIN the Northern (or Southern) Hemisphere, the FURTHER away East or West you are from Magnetic North, the more it can be measured. Let me show again with the illustration from the above.

    Where the arrow points to ‘Magnetic North’ – if you follow that line South, to where the second big circle encircles the globe, that is roughly California. From California facing ‘Magnetic North’ there is no difference to real North. Even though the compass points to ‘closer’ than real North, both point GEOGRAPHICALLY in the same direction, into true North. The same would be true if you were opposite that point in Russia, in Siberia, then the compass would point ‘beyond Real North’ but the DIRECTION is identical with Magnetic North. So if you happen to be ‘directly South’ of where Magnetic North Pole is, or exactly opposite that on the other side, then there is no difference to what the compass shows and what is True North. But the further you move either East or West, so if you go the furthest East, you’d be in Iceland, and furthest West you’d be in Japan, those areas experience the worst distortion on the same latitude.

    With this to add to my original guess of about 100 million people impacted, the reality is that probably only about 2/3 of those people are in both North-enough area, and far enough East/West to notice this phenomenon. Thats well less than 1% of the human population. But us in the Nordics (Scandinavia and Finland) and those in the Furthest East Asia, NorthEast Russia (Vladivostok) and Japan Hokkaido etc, they will yes, see a big difference in their compass reading vs real North.

    I hope this helped.

    Tomi Ahonen
    In my day job, I’m a tech author

  9. The north pole, is in fact the magnetic south pole. Two opposite poles attract each other. That is why the compass needle point North.

  10. Tomi T Ahonen nice comment very informative. But there is a large group of people who are very effected by the variations of declination.
    Pilots. True in California the difference between true and magnetic north is slight. But in locations midwest and eastern US it us 12° to 18° off. A magnetic compass is very important because it needs no electricity, it needs no calibration. But even 5° on a 300 mile trip can cause big problems.
    So in the aviation community declination is a daily part of life.

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