For centuries, navigators of the world’s oceans have been familiar with an effect of Earth’s magnetic field: It imparts a directional preference to the needle of a compass. Although in some settings magnetic orientation remains important, the modern science of geomagnetismhas emerged from its romantic nautical origins and developed into a subject of great depth and diversity. The geomagnetic field is used to explore the dynamics of Earth’s interior and its surrounding space environment, and geomagnetic data are used for geophysical mapping, mineral exploration, risk mitigation, and other practical applications. A global distribution of ground-based magnetic observatories supports those pursuits by providing accurate records of the magnetic-field direction and intensity at fixed locations and over long periods of time.
Magnetic observatories were first established in the early 19th century in response to the influence of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss. Since then, magnetic measurement has advanced significantly, progressing from simple visual readings of magnetic survey instruments to include automatic photographic measurement and modern electronic acquisition. To satisfy the needs of the scientific community, observatories are being upgraded to collect data that meet ever more stringent standards, to achieve higher acquisition frequencies, and to disseminate data in real time.
To appreciate why data from magnetic observatories can be used for so many purposes, one needs only to recall that the geomagnetic field is a continuum, connecting the different parts of Earth to each other and to nearby space. Beneath our feet and above our heads, electric currents generate magnetic fields that contribute to the totality of the geomagnetic field measured at an observatory on Earth’s surface. The many physical processes that operate in each geophysical domain give rise to a complicated field that exhibits a wide variety of time-dependent behavior. In this article I review the status of the global community of magnetic observatories, show how Earth and space can be monitored for purposes of scientific understanding and practical application, and highlight the role played by magnetic observatories in the history of geomagnetism research.