The Effect of Magnetic Pole Movements on the Runways


I was on skype with my friend and out of the blue he shot me the following question:

“Does the shifting of the poles have anything to do with aviation?”

The first thing that popped in my mind is the runways and then the maps… Well then an awesome concept for my next sci-fi short story! I took a deep breath and tried to shoot in the dark and gave him the following answer (Indeed, it is the right answer.):


By North Pole, I’m talking about the magnetic north. (The magnetic north is the point where the Earth’s magnetic lines intersect at the north hemisphere, vertically) There is also another set of poles, the true north/south or the geographical north/south. (The true north/south is the point where the axis of the Earth meets the surface of the north/south hemisphere)
Both the poles (magnetic and true) move. The magnetic north actually moves faster by a few kilometers per day and a few hundred kilometers in centuries. The following representation would help you to get an image about the magnetic north pole movement over years.



Let’s circle back to our aviation problems now! As I said, runways are the first thing that is affected by the pole movement. Runway markings are usually based on the magnetic north poles except a few airports which are marked based on the true north. Say if a runway is marked as 09, it will point to the east. It actually means that the runway is pointing at 90 degrees from the magnetic north, towards the east.

When the magnetic north pole moves, this alignment of the runways will no longer be accurate and it will change over decades. So the tiny error would lead to a major catastrophe and this is the reason why runways are re numbered over time corresponding to the position of the magnetic North Pole.

So the major effect due to the north pole movement in aviation is on the runway numbering systems. The airports will be pushed into an immense load of work correcting the maps and other data.

This applies for maps too. So always make sure have an updated map that clearly shows the magnetic declination of the area besides the most important tools: The compass and the GPS :)

Hope this answer helped you… I’d love to discuss more and feel free to start one below…

Got a question?

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This post was first published on November 28, 2013.


Karthikeyan KC

Aeronautical engineer, dev, science fiction author, gamer, and an explorer. I am the creator of Geekswipe. I love writing about physics, aerospace, astronomy, and python. I created Swyde. Currently working on Arclind Mindspace.

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4 Responses

  1. Avatar Ramanaath SK

    Does it affect the airplane pointers? Will the airplane heading change?

    • 1. Yes, the pointers will point based on the new magnetic north.
      2. No! Well, when the runways are renamed, the corresponding charts will be corrected too. So the airplane heading (position relative to the destination) never changes. Its the magnetic heading that actually changes. ( All the airports are gonna stay still ;) So, u will be pointing to the same direction but with a different heading on the dial! )