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Magnetic north and true north merge for first time in 360 years

Anyone that has used a map and compass to navigate, knows that magnetic and true north do not align… until now!

At some point over the next two weeks compasses at Greenwich will point true north for the first time in about 360 years.

The angle a compass needle makes between true north and magnetic north is called declination and those that reguarly use a map and compass will be well versed in making the small, but vital adjustment to getting their bearings.

As the magnetic field changes all the time, so does declination at any given location.

Over the past few hundred years in the UK, declination has been negative, meaning that all compass needles have pointed west of true north.

The line of zero declination, called the agonic, is moving westwards at a rate of around 12 miles (20km) per year, experts say.

At some point in September, for the first time in around 360 years, the compass needle will point directly to true north at Greenwich in London before slowly turning eastwards.

The Royal Observatory Greenwich was established in 1676 and, from 1839, hosted the specialised magnetic observatory which made continuous measurements from 1840 onwards.

In 1926 the instruments were moved to Abinger in Surrey, as electrified railway lines had made it impossible to measure the magnetic field.

This marks the first time since the observatory’s creation that the geographic and geomagnetic coordinate systems have coincided at this location.

The agonic will continue to pass across the UK over the next 15 to 20 years. By 2040, all compasses will probably point eastwards of true north.

It is, at present, impossible to predict how the magnetic field will change over decades to centuries, so the compass may well point east of true north for another 360 years in the UK.

However, the experts have stressed that zero inclination will have no impact on daily life.  Compasses and GPS will work as usual – there’s no need for anyone to worry about any disturbance to daily life.

The agonic line is crossing from east to west.  It arrived at East Anglia and Kent in 2017 and is now passing slowly across the British Isles but will take some time before it reaches Cornwall.


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Updated on January 27th, 2013

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