Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.
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Think of the World Magnetic Model as the map beneath maps. It powers countless forms of essential navigation, using the earth’s magnetic field. And lately, it’s on shaky ground.
In brief: The WMM is the standardized mathematical system used by NATO, NASA, FAA, and countless government defense agencies to orient planes, boats, and satellites around the globe. The magnetometers in the world’s billions of smartphones also depend on it to align the compasses in mapping apps. All of this depends on the position of the magnetic north pole, which is determined by the churn of liquid iron within the earth’s core. (Technology! It’s only natural.)
Right now, the maintainers of the WMM are scrambling to catch up with rapid changes out of their control. That sloshing metal inside our planet has always been dynamic, but in recent years, it has yanked the magnetic north pole further off course than expected. In the 1990s, the pole’s movements gained speed, moving from 15 kilometers per year to 55 kilometers per year. In 2018, the pole pushed away from the Canadian Arctic, passed through the International Date Line, and is now heading towards Siberia.
That tug-of-war between swaths of magnetic field is creating an uncomfortable amount of room for navigational errors, scientists found last year. So they’re hustling to keep up. This week, to reflect the pole’s new position, the National Centers for Environmental Information released an update to WMM that was originally scheduled for 2020. The interim fix (which was itself pushed back by the U.S. government shutdown) should tide the world over until at least next year.
Meanwhile, scientists are grappling with the cause of the magnetic north pole’s sprint and how it relates to geomagnetic pulses. By the way, the geographic north pole (which is determined by the earth’s spin) is also running amok, possibly because of climate change.
Will the average Google Maps user notice any of this? Since this year’s changes to the WMM mostly relate to higher latitudes, most civilians probably won’t be affected, unless they’re coincidentally snowshoeing around the Arctic, as one geomagnetic researcher told National Geographic. But the next time a wrong turn makes you late to an appointment, go ahead: Blame the global shift in our sense of direction.
Watch: An animation of the magnetic north pole’s wanderings over the past 400-plus years. (NOAA)
Read more: “Earth’s magnetic field is acting up and geologists don’t know why.” (Nature)
Not about your backyard
In CityLab this week, the historical geographer Garrett Dash Nelson makes an impassioned case for neither NIMBYism nor YIMBYism, but rather to clarify the meaning of the “B-Y” in both acronyms: back yard.
Community advocates flip-flop on what constitutes their “back yard” as it relates to their own self-interests, Nelson writes, whether it’s to push for new light-rail line connecting their neighborhood to downtown, or to resist a new high-rise under construction on their block. To serve the needs of everyone who is “local” to a city, we need a broader, more consistent geographic definition of “back yard,” he argues:
What if more people were willing to think of themselves as part of a larger community—one that encompasses not just their immediate next-door neighbors, but a broader definition of “neighbors” that would include those in the metropolitan region, and even people in the suburban and rural areas … ? In other words, if we took seriously the realization that the substandard housing, disinvested public amenities, and ecological sacrifice zones present in every metropolitan area are are a part of our back yard—even if our immediate vicinity happens to be a leafy suburb or a hip Millennial block—would we tolerate the political and economic conditions that allowed them to exist?
Read all about shifting the “geography of locality.”
Hair, where?: Salon colorists draw inspiration from maps. (Refinery29) ♦ In the black: Meet the astrophysicist mapping the universe’s parts unknown. (Quanta) ♦ Danger zones: the deadliest places to walk in America. (CityLab) ♦ Lines on trial: Michigan courts are scrutinizing the state’s voting districts for illegal Republican bias. (Michigan Public Radio) ♦ Picket fences to steel bars: More U.S. arrests are happening in the suburbs. (CityLab) ♦ Hole earth: Due to the government shutdown, the U.S. is a blank space in world temperature maps from December. (Twitter)
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