Magnetic Reversals : Back to the future
Magnetic Reversals : Back to the future?
The magnetic field of Earth is shaped like the one you see in a toy bar magnet, but there is a very important difference. The toy magnet field is firmly fixed in the solid body of the magnet and does not change with time, unless you decide to melt the magnet with a blow torch! The Earth's field, however, changes in time. Not only does its strength change, but the direction it is pointing also changes.
Map makers have been aware that the direction of the magnetic field changes since the 1700's. Every few decades, they had to re-draw their maps of harbors and landmarks to record the new compass bearings for places of interest. Think about it. If you are on a ship navigating a harbor in a fog, a slight change in your compass heading can take you into a reef or a sandbar!
Geologists have also been keeping track of the wandering magnetic poles as well. Instead of using compasses, they can actually detect the minute fossil traces of Earth's magnetism in rocks. These rocks are dated to determine when they were formed. From this information, geologists can figure out exactly how Earth's magnetic field has changed during the last two billion years. The results are surprising.
Since the 1800's, Earth's magnetic North Pole has wandered over 1100 kilometers. By the year 2030, the magnetic pole will actually be almost right on top of our geographic North Pole. Then in the next century, it will be in the northern reaches of Siberia! Scientists are excited, and a bit concerned, by the sudden dramatic change in the magnetic pole's location. They worry that something may be going on deep within the Earth to cause these changes, and they have seen this kind of thing happen before.
What geologists have discovered is that the magnetic poles of Earth don't just wander around a little, they actually flip-flop over time. About 800,000 years ago, the Earth's magnetic poles were opposite to the ones we have today. Back then, your compass would point to Antarctica, because the North magnetic pole was located there.
Geologists have discovered in the dating of the rocks that the magnetism of Earth has reversed itself hundreds of times over the last billion years. Careful measurements of rock strata from around the world confirm these reversal events in the same layers, so they really are global events, not just local ones. What is even more interesting is that the time between these magnetic reversals, and how long they last, has changed dramatically.
20 million years ago, the time between reversals had shortened to about 330,000 years, and each reversal lasted 220,000 years.
Today, the time between reversals has declined to only about 200,000 years during the last few million years, and each reversal lasts about 100,000 years or so.
When did the last reversal happen?
Beginning in the 1920's, geologists discovered traces of the last few magnetic reversals in rock samples from around the world. Between 730,000 years ago to today, we have had the current magnetic conditions where the North magnetic pole is located in the Northern Hemisphere near the Arctic. Geologists call this the Brunhes Chron. Between 730,000 to 1,670,000 years ago, Earth's magnetic poles were reversed during what geologists call the Matuyama Chron. This means that the North magnetic pole was found in the Southern Hemisphere. Notice that the time since the last reversal (the end of the Mayuyama Chron) is 730,000 years. This is a LOT longer than the 200,000 years!
Some scientists think that we may be overdue for a magnetic reversal by about 500,000 years!
Is there any evidence that we are headed towards this condition? Scientists think that the sudden, rapid change in our magnetic pole location is one sign of a significant change beginning to occur. Another sign is the actual strength of Earth's magnetic field.
Scientists are convinced that Earth's magnetic field is created by currents flowing in the liquid outer core of Earth. Like the current that flows to create an electromagnet, Earth's currents can change in time causing the field to increase and decrease in intensity. Geological evidence shows that Earth's field used to be twice as strong 1.5 billion years ago as it is today, but like the weather it has gone through many complicated ups and downs that scientists don't have a real good explanation for, or ability to predict. But the fossil evidence does tell us something important.
In the 730,000 years since the last magnetic reversal, Earth's field has at times been as little as 1/6 its current strength. This happened about 200,000 years ago. Also, around 700 AD it was 50% stronger than it is today. There have been many sudden ups and downs in this intensity, but some scientists think that conditions are rapidly becoming very different than the past historical trends have shown.
In the last 150 years, the strength of Earth's field has decreased by 5% per century. This doesn't seem like a very fast decrease, but it is one of the fastest ones that has been verified in the 800,000 year magnetic record we now have. At this rate, in 10 centuries we will be 50% below our current field strength, and after 2000 years we could be at zero-strength. The data on past reversals seems to show that, when the field reaches 10% of its current strength, a magnetic reversal can be triggered. It has been 730,000 years since the last reversal ended. We are certainly long overdue for a reversal, by some statistical estimates.
So, what will happen when the field reverses?
The fossil record, and other geological records, seem to say 'Not much!'
Scientists have recovered deep-sea sediment cores from the bottom of the ocean. These sediments record the abundance of oxygen atoms and their most common isotope: Oxygen-18. The increases and decreases in this oxygen isotope track the ebb and flow of periods of global glaciation. What we see is that, during the time when the last reversal happened, there was no obvious change in the glacial conditions or in the way that the conditions came and went. So, at least for the last reversal, there was no obvious change in Earth's temperature other than what geologists see from the 'normal' pattern of glaciation.
The Brunhes-Matuyama reversal happened 730,000 years ago during what paleontologists call the Middle Pleistocene Era (100,000 to 1 million years ago). There were no major changes in plant and animal life during this time, so the magnetic reversal did not lead to planet-wide extinctions, or other calamities that would have impacted existing life. It seems that the biggest stresses to plant and animal life were the comings and goings of the many Pleistocene Ice Ages. This led very rapidly to the evolution of cold-tolerant life forms like Woolly Mammoths, for example.
So, it seems that we may be headed for another magnetic reversal event in perhaps the next few thousand years. This event, based on past fossil and geological history, will not cause planet-wide catastrophies. The biosphere will not become extinct. Radiation from space will not cause horrible mutations everywhere. Ocean tides will not devastate coastal regions, and there will certainly not be volcanic activity that leads to global warming.