As it turns out, even the points of a compass are not as easy to understand and clear as they seem to be. When pulling out a compass and watching a needle point towards the north, do you know if it indicates the true north or magnetic north?
What is the difference between true north vs magnetic north?
And, are there a true south and a magnetic south, as well?
For all genuine travelers, seekers of Santa Claus, and soft-hearted buccaneers, here’s some info on what is the difference between true north and magnetic north:
What is True North?
True north, also called geographic north, is the place where the meridians coincide in the north. It is the fixed point which we usually call the North Pole (or the Geographic North Pole). Lying directly opposite the South Pole, it is the northernmost point on the planet, geographically speaking.
It is impossible for scientists to physically mark the exact location of the North Pole with any permanent station, as there is no land, only the drifting ice.
Fun fact: The Chinese invented the compass over 2,000 years ago, sometime between 20 BCE and 20 CE. These first compasses were made of lodestone, a naturally magnetized piece of the magnetite mineral. Because of this, the common literary definition for lodestone, “something which strongly attracts,” was coined. Also, the Chinese first determined the existence of a magnetic declination around 720 CE. (For more like this, check out our list of facts about China.)
What is Magnetic North?
We can say that the Earth itself is a giant magnet. Magnetic North is actually a spot where the compass needle points, and it is different from the Geographic North Pole.
Unlike the North Pole, the location of which stays unchanged, magnetic north is constantly moving. This happens because of fluctuations in the flow of molten iron within the Earth’s core.
The National Centers for Environmental Information states that since its first formal discovery in 1831, the north magnetic pole has traveled around 1,400 miles (2,250 km). For the last few decades, it has been traveling with a speed of about 55 kilometers (34 miles) per year; however, recently scientists noticed that this shifting speed is slowing down.
Magnetic Declination VS Magnetic Deviation
So, knowing the difference between magnetic north and true north, with one being a place where the planet’s magnetic field goes vertically down into the Earth and the other being a geographic point on the globe, we can talk about magnetic declination.
Magnetic declination is the angle between the true north and the magnetic north, the difference, if you will. As you can imagine, this angle is also constantly changing. It can be positive when the magnetic north is located on the east of true north and negative when the magnetic north is on the west.
Magnetic deviation, on the other hand, is the difference between magnetic north and the pointing of the compass needle. It is an error that occurs in a compass if there are other magnetic fields or bodies that can interfere within the field of influence.
Fun fact: The Bermuda Triangle is one of a few places on the Earth where the compass sometimes points towards the true north instead of the magnetic north.
Is There a True South & a Magnetic South?
Actually, yes. Because there’s a true north, it follows logically that there is a true south. Likewise, there is a magnetic south that corresponds to the magnetic north.
Since north is the most important direction for most, true south and magnetic south don’t get tossed around. Still, though, there are some use cases for finding these southern points, such as when aiming a satellite dish.
Well, that’s our quick guide on the difference between true north and magnetic north. We hope you enjoyed it and found it useful! If you have any feedback, questions, or other points to add on magnetic north vs geographic north, add them below in the comments section. Thanks for reading!
Want some more difference busters? Check out our articles on the differences between geographic north vs magnetic north, Oriental vs Asian, Latin American vs Spanish, heritage vs ethnicity, Persian vs Middle Eastern, and embassies vs consulates.