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Confusion About the North Magnetic Pole

by Ron Kurtus (revised 13 February 2017)

There is often confusion concerning the magnetic polarity of the Earth's North Magnetic Pole compared with the north pole of a magnet or compass. This has to do with the historical naming of both entities.

Since opposite magnetic poles attract, and the fact that the N pole of a compass points north, the magnetic field from the North Magnetic Pole must really be a south magnetic field.

A good way to avoid confusion is to called the poles of a magnet or a compass as the north-seeking pole and south-seeking pole.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions. Useful tool: Units Conversion



Naming compass poles

The compass was invented in China the early eleventh century. It consisted of a floating magnetic needle or a suspended magnet that would rotate and point in the north and south directions. It was later used in navigation.

For a long time, it was thought that the compass pointed toward the North Star. That end or pole of the compass was called the north pole of the magnet. Often the north pole of the magnet was colored red and marked with "N".

This naming convention for magnets has thus been in effect for hundreds of years.

Discovering Earth's Magnetic Poles

It wasn't until the 1600s when astronomer William Gilbert discovered that the Earth had a magnetic field coming from an area near the North and South geographical poles. It was assumed that the Earth was like a huge magnet and those areas were named the Earth's North and South Magnetic Poles.

They have had those designations since then.

Naming convention

However, since opposite poles of a magnet attract each other, and the fact that the N pole of a magnet or compass points toward the Earth's North Magnetic Pole, one of them has been incorrectly named. The magnetic fields or poles must be opposite in order to attract each other.

Earth's magnetic fields

Since the north pole of a compass is attracted to the North Magnetic Pole, then the polarity of the North Magnetic Pole must really be south! This can be seen in the illustration below:

Earth's magnetic field designation

Earth's magnetic field designation

Image from Physics.org - Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This was confusing, but scientists felt that it was easier to say the Earth's internal magnet had its south pole facing the North Magnetic Pole than to try to change the way the public called their magnets.

Note: This situation is similar to that in electricity, where by convention electrical current goes from positive (+) to negative (−), but electrons move in the opposite direction in a wire. Once things were designated and in common use, they could not be readily changed.

Suggested designation

A suggested solution to this problem is to use the designation of the poles on a magnet or compass as north-seeking pole and south-seeking pole.

Summary

The confusion about the names of the Earth's Magnetic Poles and the poles of a compass or bar magnet come from the historical naming of the poles.

Since the north (N) pole of a compass is attracted to the Earth's North Magnetic Pole, that pole must really be the south pole of the magnetic material within the Earth.

To avoid confusion, the best route is to be careful with your terminology. It is best to call the ends of a compass or bar magnet the north-seeking pole and south-seeking pole.


Try to use logical conventions


Resources and references

The following are resources on this subject.

Websites

North Magnetic Pole - Wikipedia

Earth's Magnetic Poles - Windows to the Universe

History of geomagnetism - Wikipedia

What Are Magnetic Poles? - Study.com

William Gilbert - astronomer - Wikipedia

Why the North pole is actually a South seeking pole - Physics.org

Magnetism Resources

Books

Top-rated books on Magnetism


Questions and comments

Do you have any questions, comments, or opinions on this subject? If so, send an email with your feedback. I will try to get back to you as soon as possible.


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