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Where does a compass really point?

compass A compass in the Northern Hemisphere truly does point in a northerly direction, but not to the North Pole. Instead, the compass points to the North Magnetic Pole, which, as Sir James Clark Ross discovered in 1831, is located at the northernmost point of the Artic coast of North America. Similarly, a compass in the Southern hemisphere always points to the South Magnetic Pole, which is firmly planted south of Australia, in Antarctica.

The different directions their compasses pointed, when traversing the high seas of the Northern Hemisphere, baffled ancient mariners. Their modern counterparts understand, and compensate for, the differences in the North Pole and the Northern Magnetic Pole, and chart their courses accordingly. The bane of boy scouts, as they attempt to navigate with, or without, the benefit of their trusty compasses, is the fact that this Pole chooses to roam about in a 20-mile circle, and to shift its course between day and night.

This 20-mile variance, however, is not one of global proportions. Modern seafarers compensate for the Northern Magnetic Pole's perpetual motion, by using charts, and tools other than the compass. All things considered, 20 miles is a minor measure for distant travelers to take into account in adjusting their travel agenda.

Thankfully, the Southern Magnetic Pole spares sailors the navigational nightmare its Northern nemesis does. In the south, compass needles actually do point true South, to the South Magnetic field.

  • During midsummer, the radical leaves of the compass plant invariably point precisely north and south.
  • The rings of a tree are always farther apart on the tree's southern side. Woodsmen often read tree rings to find the compass points.
  • Honeybees navigate using the Sun as a compass, even when it is hidden behind clouds - they find it via the polarization of ultraviolet light from areas of blue sky.
  • Women navigate by landmarks and visual memories. Men navigate by direction and distance, and tend to be better at reading maps.
  • According to Aristotle, wind direction determined whether a baby would be a boy or a girl.
  • The Pole of Inaccessibility is the point on the continent of Antarctica that is farthest in all directions from the seas surrounding it. The term is sometimes used to refer to the point in the Arctic Ocean that is equal distances from the landmasses surrounding it.
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