Old stone walls record the changing location of magnetic north

When I was a kid living in southern New Hampshire, my family home was on the site of an abandoned farmstead consisting of massive stone foundations of quarried granite where dwellings once stood. Stone walls snaked throughout the forest. As I explored the deep woods of tall oaks and maples, I wondered about who had built these walls, and why. What stories did these walls contain?

As nature reclaimed farmland, stone walls continued to mark historical boundaries. John Delano, CC BY-ND
Decades later, while living in a rural setting in upstate New York and approaching retirement as a geologist, my long dormant interest was rekindled by treks through the neighboring woods. By now I knew that stone walls in New England and New York are iconic vestiges from a time when farmers, in order to plant crops and graze livestock, needed to clear the land of stones. Tons and tons of granite had been deposited throughout the region during the last glaciation that ended about 10,000 years ago.

By the late 1800s, nearly 170,000 subsistence farming families had built an estimated 246,000 miles of stone walls across the Northeast. But by then, the Industrial Revolution had already started to contribute to the widespread abandonment of these farms in the northeastern United States. They were overgrown by forests within a few decades.

During my more recent walks through the woods, on a whim I used a hand-held GPS unit to map several miles of stone walls. And that was how I realized that in addition to being part of an American legacy, their locations record a centuries-long history of the Earth’s wandering magnetic field.

Connecting the walls with historical maps

The complex array of walls that emerged from my GPS readings made no sense to me until I found an old map of my town’s property boundaries at the local historical society. Suddenly I saw that some of the stone walls on my map lay along property lines from 1790. They marked boundaries.

My subsequent searches of church records and decades of the federal census revealed the names of these farm families and details of their lives, including annual yields from their harvests. I started to feel like the stone walls were letting me connect with the long-gone folks who had worked this land.

Now the wheels in my scientist’s mind really started spinning. Did the original land surveys from the 18th and 19th centuries in this part of town still exist? What were the magnetic compass-bearings of those boundaries on the original surveys?

Historical maps and surveys underscore the orderly way plots were divvied up from the landscape in a grid. Charles Peirce/Stoddard, New Hampshire
I knew that the location of magnetic north drifts over time due to changes in the Earth’s core. Could I determine its drift using stone walls and the old land surveys? My preliminary map of stone walls and a few historical surveys showed that the approach had potential.

To have any scientific value, though, this work had to encompass much larger areas. I needed a different strategy for finding and mapping stone walls. Luckily I found two troves of useful information. First, the New York State Archives had hundreds of the original land surveys from the 18th and 19th centuries. And secondly, airborne LiDAR (light detection and ranging) images were publicly available that could reveal stone walls hidden beneath the forest canopy over much larger areas than I could cover on my own by foot.