The poles are switching

I’ve got three sciencey-type posts coming this week. Because science is awesome. Today we’re talking about the poles.

Some call it the polar flip. Others call it a geomagnetic reversal. In any event, the north and south poles are in the process of switching magnetic direction. It is not the first time this has happened* (the poles switch every 100,000 to 1 million years), but it is the first time it has happened while humans have had any sort of infrastructure that relies on the earth’s magnetic field.

*The last one, the Brunhes–Matuyama reversal, occurred 780,000 years ago.

I first heard about this story in my high school physics class. My teacher mentioned it offhandedly – please turn to page 78 in your textbook, hey did you guys know that the poles are switching, anyway today we’ll be discussing Newton’s third law of thermodynamics – and, I, uh, couldn’t just let that go. The freakin’ poles are switching, how cool is that?!?

I have tried to follow any developments in the decade or so since.

Well, earlier this month data collected by a European satellite array suggested that the Earth’s magnetic field is shifting and weakening at a greater pace than previously thought. Previously, researchers estimated that the earth’s magnetic field was weakening at 5 percent per century, but the new data reveals that the field is weakening at 5 percent per decade. Which means we’re less than 200 years away from the full flip.

So, what does this mean?


Historically, there is no evidence that magnetic field reversals result in any mass extinctions or radiation damage. The worst that happens is that a compass points south instead of north.


All power grids and communication systems fail. The magnetic fields that protect us from radiation weaken to the point where radiation damage is a serious threat. Navigation systems that rely on the magnetic field are no longer accurate. Compasses are rendered moot. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.

Personally, I think this could be a real boon to the magnetic compass industry. Imagine the type of demand they’ll see if all compasses have to be re-calibrated. Gold, Jerry! Gold!


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