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Which is truly true: Magnetic vs. True North:
For some 30 years the theory of “Magnetic Variation” was offered as a viable explanation for aircraft disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. This first found its way to the public, sadly, through the US Coast Guard. Due to the popularity of the Bermuda Triangle in the 1970s, and the many resultant inquires to their headquarters, they ordered drafted an official opinion on their suspected reasons for the disappearances. This little chit was not a dynamic explanation, but because the Coast Guard issued it this chit became something easy for any government agency to xerox and hand out. By effect it thus became the “official opinion” of that nebulous umbrella term, “the US Government.” It was also reproduced in toto in Charles Berlitz’s 1974 international bestseller The Bermuda Triangle, and naturally after that the Coast Guard’s chit became embedded in the popular mind. In 1990 when I made my first inquiry about the Triangle, I was sent back a xerox copy of this self same chit. I was quite surprised, for it was about 20 years old at that time. For a 24 year old man, that seemed from another world. It was the exact chit that was quoted in Berlitz’s and other old books I had, and their pages had by then yellowed and they smelled of that wonderful atmosphere of old book stores. Yet this still was the current opinion, by effect, of the US Government. When I put this web site up in 1999, I had hit the chit hard and noted many things about its inaccuracy, especially about the “magnetic variation” excuse. Within a few years, the Coast Guard decided to finally revise its opinion. I was contacted by Chief P.O. Suddarth at the Coast Guard 7th District Public Relations headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida, for my input. A couple of years later, by a round about way, it came back to me that the Coast Guard did indeed finally alter their opinion. Most significantly they removed the whole idea of “magnetic variation.” I was grateful to see that. Of all the theories they proposed, this was the one that was not only completely unsubstantiated but completely impossible. Let’s have a look at it. The original chit read:
A remarkable and frankly ill-thought opinion. Magnetic Variation is actually something incredibly easy to understand. It is basically Navigation 101. First, compass variation does not mean that the compass needle points somewhere else. The compass always points to Magnetic North. The problem with this is Magnetic North is not at the North Pole, the absolute geographic northern spot on this planet; it is 1,500 miles away to the south, naturally. As far as the compass is concerned, the absolute north of this planet is at Prince of Wales Island in the Northwest Territories of Canada. The magnetic field of the earth can be likened to a bar magnet running through the earth from north to south. Opposite ends of the bar would be the north and south magnetic poles. The bar itself would be the axis or, as it is called in geophysics, the Agonic Line. This would not pose any problem to the navigator were it not for the fact that Magnetic North is located at an angle to the North Pole. Following the N on your compass is not going to lead you to the North Pole; it will lead you to Prince of Wales Island. See illustration.
Right: as the compass sees the four cardinal points. See what happens if you blindly follow your magnetic compass. Everything is tilted because it believes North is 1,500 miles south of the North Pole. West is slightly southwest; East is slightly northeast; North is slightly northwest; South: southeast. Wherever a navigator is, he must adjust his heading to maintain a true course. . . except at the Agonic Line.
The compass on the right hand side of the illustration reflects what we imagine the compass to reflect: the true North, East, West, and South of this geographic sphere. The compass on the left hand side shows the truth. If viewed from the Azores, the magnetic compass actually records North 020o off from the North Pole. If a navigator followed the “N” on his compass, he would be heading Northwest. In order to head True North at the Azores, a navigator would have to steer a course of 20 degrees.
Compensating for magnetic variation isn’t difficult. The navigator must only know the number of degrees of difference between Magnetic North and True North at any given location. This changes according to one’s longitude and latitude around the earth, and pilot charts record the particular amount of variation. For instance, the above illustration uses the Azores Islands. At this location on the globe there is a large variation between True and Magnetic North. As one heads further West, the amount of variation slowly narrows. One is drawing closer to the Agonic line, that central invisible bar between magnetic poles. When finally off the east coast of Florida (when the Coast Guard first drew up their chit), there is no variation. The compass points to True North. In reality, the compass is still pointing to Magnetic North. It just so happens that True North is directly north of Magnetic North at this point in the Agonic Line. See illustration.
The red dots indicate True North, that is, the absolute geographic north of this planet (North Pole); and Magnetic North, 1,500 miles in a southerly direction from it. The central axis (Agonic Line) of the magnetic field extends through the planet to the South Magnetic Pole at Antarctica. When off Florida, both the North Pole and the Magnetic Pole are in line. The compass truly points to the North Pole here. It is merely incidental because Magnetic North is directly due south of the North Pole here.
Except for this narrow corridor, there is always some form of compensation the navigator must go through. With this explained, we come back to the Coast Guard’s old explanation for why so many could have vanished in the Triangle. The Coast Guard chit is basically saying that navigational mistakes could have been easily were made because the pilots were used to compensating and did not have to in the Triangle. This is actually impossible. For one, at the time the Coast Guard wrote their chit (early 1970s), the Agonic Line and the corridor of alignment between Magnetic and True North was off Florida’s east coast. To give you an idea of how narrow this corridor of no-variation is, the first of the Bahama Islands, the islands of Bimini, are about about 55 miles off the east coast of Florida. Already here, at Bimini, there was a 2 degree variation in the compass, which means the compass pointed 2 degrees off from True North. Just by traveling a few miles beyond the Agonic Line off Florida’s east coast, the variation begins.
Furthermore, no pilot could ever get lost here. At cruising altitude between Florida and the Bahamas, a pilot can see either and/or. He doesn’t even need to rely on his compass. Failure to compensate the amount of variation correctly can cause a pilot to get lost anywhere in the world. One degree off can, over time, result in many miles in error, making a pilot miss his intended destination. But in this narrow corridor off Florida it was impossible. How does one not compensate anyway? How does a pilot takeoff and apply a certain degree of variation when he does not have to? He needs to know magnetic variation in his area before he can even plot a course. I try and list theories objectively. But in this case a dead horse is a dead horse. There was no merit to this theory then and there is even less now, for the Agonic Line moves as the magnetic pole shifts, due to many factors in the rotation of the earth. (Actually every 2 months or so a flight is manned and sent to find the magnetic pole.) In the last 35 years, the Agonic Line has drifted westward into the Gulf of Mexico beyond Key West— to those who demand adherence to a strict shape to the “Triangle,” completely outside of it. The upshot is that the Agonic Line is not in the Triangle anymore. Yet disappearances still occur in the same places as before, even though the Line is on the other side of Florida now. The artwork and maps show the Agonic Line where it was when the Coast Guard made up their little chit about 35 years ago. Magnetic Variation was not a satisfactory explanation then. It is even more passé now.
The area of the Agonic Line marked in red, as it was when the Coast Guard drew up their statement 35 years ago. Along this line there is no need to adjust one’s heading because Magnetic North and True North coincide. Already at Bimini island there is a 2 degree westerly variation. That means if a pilot wanted to head True West here, he would not steer 270o by his compass but 272o. It seems infinitesimal, but over time 2 degrees can lead to dozens of miles off course. In the short distances between the coast and the Bahama Islands, it doesn’t amount to much here.
Fortunately, many good things came about from the Coast Guard’s desire to update their chit. In 2005 those who wanted it updated finally succeeded. I was sent the following from a TV producer in London. They had received this when they inquired of the Coast Guard’s opinion on the subject. The chit’s author still condemns the Triangle enigma as false, but they at least got rid of their old magnetic variation theory.
It is, of course, wonderful that the Coast Guard finally removed that old embarrassing excuse. But to some extent it still dogs them. It’s in old books, old documentaries, millions have read it on this web site. It revealed to what little extent the officer or PR man who was first assigned the task so long ago even bothered to look into the topic, and there is much in the Coast Guard’s continuing view which is still the product of that first haphazard memo. The upshot is, I don’t think too many take the opinion seriously. But at last the magnetic variation theory is laid to rest.