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Scientists Can’t Fix Map of Earth’s Magnetic Field Thanks to the Government Shutdown

The federal government was set to update the World Magnetic Model but had to delay it because of the shutdown.

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Jan 10 2019, 1:09pm

Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Lately, Earth’s magnetic field has been wigging out, scooting toward Siberia at the north magnetic pole with such haste that scientists decided to update the map of these powerful forces.

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The World Magnetic Model is an overview of Earth’s magnetic field used by navigational tools, everywhere from the Department of Defense to apps on your smartphone. Now, a new version of the map is being withheld due to the government shutdown.

“The release of the World Magnetic Model has been postponed to 30 January,” the journal Nature reported on Monday.

The new model was scheduled to be upgraded on January 15, according to Nature. But the federal government oversees the project (along with the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, Scotland), so now we have to wait.

The World Magnetic Model’s US webpage is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado is one of the agencies responsible for the project.

"January 30 is only a tentative release date at this point, assuming the government reopens between now and then," Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and NOAA who works on the project, told Motherboard.

"The World Magnetic Model is distributed by NOAA so we need NOAA to reopen first before being able to release the new model," Chulliat added.

The page is currently inaccessible due to the shutdown, but a cached version displays the message: “A comprehensive rollout with updated online calculator, software, maps and technical note is anticipated in the coming months.”

The World Magnetic Model is updated every five years, and was originally slated to expire on December 31, 2019.

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But since Earth’s magnetic field has been behaving erratically, scientists felt they couldn’t wait. “The error is increasing all the time,” Chulliat told Nature.

As the planet rotates along its axis, liquid iron churns beneath its surface within a superhot core, generating electric currents that, in turn, produce a magnetic field.

Once in a very long while, Earth’s magnetic field will flip. Over the last 200,000 years, magnetic north and south have reversed every 200,000 to 300,000 years, according to National Geographic. The last time this happened was roughly 780,000 years ago, making us somewhat overdue.

Scientists are still trying to understand what’s behind the drunken wandering of our magnetic field, and the indefinite closure of the US government certainly doesn’t help.

This story has been updated to include a comment from Arnaud Chulliat.

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