Do animals use the magnetic field for orientation?

Yes. There is evidence that some animals, like sea turtles and salmon, have the ability to sense the Earth's magnetic field (although probably not consciously) and to use this sense for navigation.

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How do salmon know where their home is when they return from the ocean?

Salmon come back to the stream where they were 'born' because they 'know' it is a good place to spawn; they won't waste time looking for a stream with good habitat and other salmon. Scientists believe that salmon navigate by using the earth’s magnetic field like a compass. When they find the river they came from, they start using smell to find...

Why measure the magnetic field at the Earth's surface? Wouldn't satellites be better suited for space-weather studies?

Satellites and ground-based magnetometers are both important for making measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field. They are not redundant but are instead complementary: Satellites provide good geographical coverage for data collection. Ground-based magnetometers are much less expensive and much easier to install than satellites. An array of...

Does the Earth's magnetic field affect human health?

The Earth's magnetic field does not directly affect human health. Humans evolved to live on this planet. High-altitude pilots and astronauts can experience higher levels of radiation during magnetic storms, but the hazard is due to the radiation, not the magnetic field itself. Geomagnetism can also impact the electrically-based technology that we...

What is declination?

At most places on the Earth's surface, the compass doesn't point exactly toward geographic north. The deviation of the compass from true north is an angle called "declination" (or "magnetic declination"). It is a quantity that has been a nuisance to navigators for centuries, especially since it varies with both geographic location and time . It...

How does the Earth's core generate a magnetic field?

The Earth's outer core is in a state of turbulent convection as the result of radioactive heating and chemical differentiation. This sets up a process that is a bit like a naturally occurring electrical generator, where the convective kinetic energy is converted to electrical and magnetic energy. Basically, the motion of the electrically...

Is the Earth a magnet?

In a sense, yes. The Earth is composed of layers having different chemical compositions and different physical properties. The crust of the Earth has some permanent magnetization, and the Earth’s core generates its own magnetic field, sustaining the main part of the field we measure at the surface. So we could say that the Earth is, therefore, a "...

Do any mass extinctions correlate with magnetic reversals?

No. There is no evidence of a correlation between mass extinctions and magnetic pole reversals. Earth’s magnetic field and its atmosphere protect us from solar radiation. It’s not clear whether a weak magnetic field during a polarity transition would allow enough solar radiation to reach the Earth's surface that it would cause extinctions. But...
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Date published: September 12, 2016

Mapping a Space-Weather Menace to Electric-Power Grids

New strides have been made toward quantifying how geomagnetic storms can interfere with the nation’s electric-power grid systems.  

Date published: March 19, 2014

Invasive Burmese Pythons Are Good Navigators and Can Find Their Way Home

Invasive Burmese pythons in South Florida are able to find their way home even when moved far away from their capture locations, a finding that has implications for the spread of the species.

Date published: September 8, 2011

Track Loon Migration via Satellites Online

Loon migratory movements from current and previous studies using satellite transmitters can be followed online at the U.S. Geological Survey Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center (UMESC) website.

Date published: March 29, 2011

Media Advisory: Unraveling the Mystery of Avian Navigation

How birds find their way over great distances during homing and migrational flights is the subject of the U.S. Geological Survey public lecture on Thursday, March 31st. After nearly half a century of intensive research, biologists are still unable to agree on how birds manage to navigate with such uncanny accuracy. 

Date published: July 20, 2010

Loons Tracked by Satellites Will Uncover Mysteries of Their Migration

Tagged Birds Will Shed Light on How Avian Botulism is Transmitted — Ten common loons are now sporting satellite transmitters so researchers can study the migratory movements and feeding patterns of these remarkable fish-eating waterbirds as they migrate through the Great Lakes toward their winter homes farther south.

Date published: September 24, 2007

International Team Tracks Shorebird along Previously Unknown Migration Route

Tracking an individual shorebird as it travels across its range from the far north is now possible, thanks to an international team of researchers led by U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) wildlife biologists Matthew Johnson and Susan Haig.

Date published: May 23, 2006

USGS, NOAA Mark 50 Years of Geomagnetic Research at Corbin, Va.


On May 23, 1956, a research center and observatory opened at Corbin, Va. to continuously monitor the Earth's magnetic field. It was charged by Congress "to enhance geomagnetic field studies and monitoring programs in support of scientific, general public, basic and national security needs of the United States."

Date published: October 2, 2002

Scientists Study the Long and Short of Pintail Duck Migration

On September 23, pintail 17530’s backpack transmitter beamed a signal from the southwest coast of Alaska to a satellite. She was flying south, 272 days after USGS scientists equipped her with a PTT, or platform transmitter terminal, last winter in California’s Central Valley, where nearly half of North America’s pintails winter.

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Sea turtle
December 31, 2017

Sea turtle

Green sea turtles are listed as threatened or endangered throughout their range. (Credit: Thierry Work, USGS)

Attribution: Ecosystems
August 3, 2016

Tracking the Migration of Bar-headed Geese

For more information on the movement of wild birds in Asia and how this relates to avian influenza viruses, see The autumn migration routes of bar-headed geese captured before the 2008 breeding season at Qinghai Lake, China, were documented using satellite tracking data. Our results showed that there

Green Sea Turtle Swimming in Dry Tortugas National Park
April 13, 2016

Green Sea Turtle Swimming in Dry Tortugas National Park

Green Sea Turtle Swimming in Dry Tortugas National Park

Graphic depicting five bird migration flyways of the Pacific Ocean basin
April 7, 2015

Five bird migration flyways of the Pacific Ocean basin

Graphic depicting five bird migration flyways of the Pacific Ocean basin.

April 6, 2010

Public Lecture: Wandering Wildlife: Tracking movement, migrations and mileage, from wolves to wading birds

  • Wildlife tracking technology has evolved from bird bands to satellite transmitters and has a wide range of applications in answering important conservation questions
  • David Mech and Robert Gill will talk about the use of the latest state-of-the-art technology in tracking wildlife
  • Mech shares the secret paths of a pack of 20 or more arctic wolves
Migratory flights simulated by the IBM
November 30, 2000

Migratory flights

Migratory flights simulated by the IBM

Chart showing the Earth’s magnetic field

Chart showing the Earth’s magnetic field

This is one of five world charts showing the declination, inclination, horizontal intensity, vertical component, and total intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field at mean sea level at the beginning of 2005. The charts are based on the International Geomagnetic Reference Field (IGRF) main model for 2005 and secular change model for 2005-2010. The IGRF is referenced to the