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?
**BEST CASE SCENARIO**
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.
**WORST CASE SCENARIO**
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!