Magnetic North

True NorthTracked and pointed by my French spaniel Abbey, the rooster pheasant hunkering in the last patch of weedy cover at the field’s edge had only one more option for escape. He launched himself skyward squawking insults at Abbey, flipped his long tail, and hammered his wings to bank across a gusting 15-mile-per-hour wind. He flew due south.

The gun came to my shoulder and the muzzles chased the rooster’s flight path. I tripped the first trigger and the shot went about three feet behind the bird. I remounted the gun, speeded my swing, tripped the second trigger, and the shot again passed harmlessly behind.

“Shucks and stuff!” I said. “Golly gee fudge!” Or words to that effect. How could I have possibly missed that left-to-right, north-to-south, wide open crossing shot? “Monkey knuckles!”

Somewhat obsessive about my field shooting, I stewed over that missed bird for three months. I replayed the shot in my mind at least two dozen times, and finally had to attribute it to bad wing shooting technique: improper gun mount, face off the comb, lead hand not far enough out on the forend, arresting my swing, not following through. What a fool.

But this week I came across an article in the science section of The New York Times that eased my mind: “The North Magnetic Pole’s Mysterious Journey Across the Arctic.” I began reading it with a casual interest in a geophysical phenomenon that I had long known about: the molten core of the Earth shifts over a period of centuries, gradually moving the location of Magnetic North – the place on the globe to which the needle of your compass points and reliable tells you “East is East, and West is West, and North is North, and South is South.” And so you know, more or less, which direction to walk to get back to hunting camp.

But here is some shocking news: the shift in the location of Magnetic North is now happening with unheard of speed, 35 miles per year or more. It is zooming north across Canada, over the Arctic icecap, and into Siberia.

The implications, to me, were quite clear. I had been blaming myself for unexplained missed shots at birds on the wing, but all this autumn the cause had been the drastic change in direction of the pull of Magnetic North on the steel barrels of my guns. It did not require any great insight to come to that conclusion, and consoled by the wisdom and support of learned geophysicists around the world I felt a sense of relief and a renewed confidence in my shooting skill.

To quote from the article by NYT science writer Shannon Hall, “…the pole has been sprinting away from Canada and toward Siberia…

“In 1965, scientists launched a data-based, mathematical representation of Earth’s magnetic field in order to better keep track of the pole’s ever-changing home. The World Magnetic Model is updated every five years — most recently in 2015 — because the magnetic field is constantly shifting.

“In early 2018, it became clear that 2015’s edition was in trouble, because the pole’s Siberian stroll had picked up speed, rendering the model — and therefore a number of navigational systems — incorrect.”

There you have it, in black and white, as reported by the world’s most esteemed scientists in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the British Geological Survey (BGS), and the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH Zurich Institute of Geophysics, based in Switzerland).

According to Andrew Jackson, a geophysicist at ETH Zurich, the radical shift in Magnetic North is not just dynamic, it’s unpredictable. “The problem that we’re still facing today is that we don’t have a good scheme to predict how the field will change,” Dr. Jackson said.

Tracking of the shift in Magnetic North dates back a couple centuries. About 1860 nautical navigators recognized that it “took a sharp turn and bee-lined toward Siberia. Since then, the site of Magnetic North has traveled nearly 1,500 miles and was most recently found in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, still moving rapidly into Siberia.

“Scientists attribute this wanderlust to the liquid iron sloshing within our planet’s outer core. That iron is buoyant — it rises, cools and then sinks. And that motion below carries Earth’s magnetic field with it, producing changes…” the NYT article states.

As I see it, one of the obvious changes is the magnetic pull on a shotgun when the shooter attempts a sharply angled crossing shot. To illustrate my contention, imagine this scenario:

A bird flushes from cover, slightly to your north, and flies due south. Based on years of experience, your body reacts with muscle memory to overcome Magnetic North’s effect on the swing of the gun barrels, the muzzles move smoothly ahead of the bird, you slap the trigger, and the charge of shot intercepts the flying target. We have all done it hundreds of times without faltering.

But today, with the position and the consequent force and direction of pull of Magnetic North constantly shifting (and, as previously cited, dynamically and unpredictably shifting), that ingrained and automatic muscle memory of the wing shooter is sent spinning, so to speak. The effect of this magnetism from some unspecified location in the north is much the same as if someone had attached a long rubber strap to the muzzles of your gun, and the longer and more forceful your swing the greater the opposing force interrupting it. We did not notice this effect until recently, of course, because it was universal, standard, unidirectional, and ubiquitous. Now, and I am simply relying on the published findings of eminent Earth scientists here, it is dynamically and unpredictably shifting.

Our mind and body are not capable of developing repetitive muscle memory motions when the environment in which they operate is variable and arbitrarily changing. Reaction time, coordination, reflex, balance – all come unraveled when confronted with this new set of circumstances. This is not rocket science folks, this is plain common sense and reasoning.

There is nothing we can do to alter Magnetic North’s race across the top of the globe from Canada into Siberia, and there is little we can do to adjust to its detrimental effects on our wing shooting. I’m presenting you with a conundrum – The North Magnetic Pole’s Mysterious Journey Across the Arctic – for which I can offer no solution, but my purpose is to make you aware that the shots at birds you missed last season were not wholly your fault and can be explained by natural forces beyond your control. Do not give up, sell your guns, give away your dogs, put your pickup on blocks in the barn, and take up croquet and badminton.

My advice is stay calm and wait this out. Several times in the past millennium Magnetic North has slowed its migration, stabilized, and even retreated to its previous site. We can hope it will do so again in our lifetime and our erstwhile shooting prowess will be restored.

In the meantime, replace your compass with a GPS unit, and remember to increase your lead by 10 percent for any bird flying in a southerly direction – 20 percent if you are using steel shot. And don’t fret over missed shots. Fix your eye on the North Star and keep your bearings, figuratively speaking. The whole world is against us, it seems, but we’re going to keep muddling through and do the best we can, magnetic interference be damned.


More stories about hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in collections of essays and novels, all available through at  Jerry Johnson Author Page


About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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2 Responses to Magnetic North

  1. Mike Rainone says:

    Hmmm. I like my warped barrel explanation a lot better. You realize that since the magnetic poles have not just migrated, but have flipped, so that North becomes South, that you are going to have to learn to shoot upside down and behind your back. Even worse, apparently, in the past, the single bipolar arrangement has disintegrated in to a multipolar configuration such that there are many hot spots of magnetization around the globe. I suppose that is why you need two barrels. if only they weren’t welded together…

    • Mike – the multi-polar situation is news to me. That explains a lot of my misses last seasons, not only with the shotguns but also with the rifle. Fortunately, I shoot aluminum shaft arrows when bow hunting, so I don’t have to re-set my sight pins.

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