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Confusion About the North Magnetic Pole

by Ron Kurtus (28 January 2013)

As you know, the N-end of a compass points toward the Earth's North Magnetic Pole and the N-pole of a bar magnet repels the N-end of a compass. However, designating the ends of a compass and bar magnet as N and S has brought about confusion regarding the actual direction of the Earth's magnetic field.

The present convention is that the North Magnetic Pole of the Earth is the south pole of the magnetic substance of the Earth's core. Likewise, the South Magnetic Pole is the north pole of the magnetic substance.

Questions you may have include:

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



Original concept

When it was discovered that the Earth had a magnetic field coming from near the North and South Poles, it was assumed that the Earth was like a huge magnet with North and South Magnetic Poles.

Compass points north

The end of a compass that pointed toward the North Magnetic Pole was called the north-seeking end of the compass.

Likewise, the end of a bar magnet that repelled the north-seeking end of a compass was called the north-seeking pole of the magnet.

However through the years, magnets were labeled with N and S ends, and people soon simply called them the north and south poles of the magnet.

Designation of Earth's magnet changed

But if the north pole of a bar magnet and of a compass were attracted to the North Magnetic Pole, then the polarity of the North Magnetic Pole must really be south!

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.

Summary

The N-end of a compass points toward the Earth's North Magnetic Pole and the N-pole of a bar magnet repels the N-end of a compass. However, designating the ends of a compass and bar magnet as N and S brought about the convention that the North Magnetic Pole of the Earth is the south pole of the magnetic substance of the Earth's core and vice versa for the South Magnetic 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

Physics Resources

Books

Top-rated books on Physics


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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