Throughout the history of Earth, the planet’s magnetic poles have undergone 180-degree flips and the next one might occur in our lifetime.
The Earth’s magnetic North was on Antarctica some 800,000 years ago, Live Science reported. As per the past studies, the flipping process takes thousands of years, however new analysis suggests the last one may have been as short as 100 years. The researchers examined the data gathered by a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite during summer and revealed that the Earth’s magnetic field is weakening 10 times faster than previous studies have estimated and that the next flip may be a couple thousand years away.
Courtney Sprain, study’s co-author and a graduate student at the University of California stated that, “It’s marvelous how swiftly we see the reversal. The paleo-magnetic data are very well done. This is one of the best records we have so far of what happens during a reversal and how quickly these reversals can happen.”
Certainly, the flipping of magnetic field is not usually linked with the natural disasters, though such events could demolish the Earth’s electrical grid. Since the magnetic field also helps protect humans from the sun’s cosmic rays, the rate of cancer on Earth could also spike.
Paul Renne, study’s co-author and director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center and a UC Berkeley professor, said in the press release, “What’s incredible is that you go from reverse polarity to a field that is normal with essentially nothing in between, which means it had to have happened very quickly, probably in less than 100 years. We don’t know whether the next reversal will occur as suddenly as this one did, but we also don’t know that it won’t.”
The European Space Agency satellite studied the magnetic field from above, while Renne and a team of researchers studied it from below. Scientists excavated through ancient lake sediments revealed at the bottom of the Apennine Mountains in Italy. Ash layers from long-ago volcanic eruptions are mixed into the sediment. The ash is made of magnetically susceptible minerals that hold traces of Earth’s magnetic field lines, and the researchers were able to measure the direction the field was pointing.
Paul Renne and colleagues then used a technique called argon-argon dating which works because radioactive potassium-40 decays into argon-40 at a known rate to determine the age of the rock sediment. The layers built up over a 10,000-year period, and the researchers could pinpoint where the poles flipped in the rock layers. The last flip happened around 786,000 years ago.
The researchers examined the sediment layers, which showed that before the sudden flip flop, the magnetic field was unsteady for about 6,000 years. The period of flux included two low points in the field’s strength, each of which lasted about 2,000 years.
Certainly, the geologists don’t know where the magnetic field is now in that reversal time scale or if this flip will even follow the same pattern as the last. The bottom line is that no one is sure when it’s coming.
Renne wrote an email to the Live Science, “We don’t have any idea whether the next reversal is going to resemble the last one, so it’s impractical to say whether we’re just seeing the first of possibly several expeditions (slight movements), or a true reversal.”
There is no need to panic, if a pole flip could cause few technical issues. Researchers have examined the geological timeline for any evidence of catastrophes that might be related to a magnetic flip. Though, they haven’t found any.
The only anticipated havoc that a reversal would cause is intruding the global electric grid. There seems no direct evidence of past catastrophes, that is caused by a magnetic flip. Although, if the magnetic field weakens enough or temporarily disappears during the flip, then the Earth could be hit with dangerous amounts of solar radiation and cosmic rays. The exposure could mean that more people develop cancer, Renne said, though there’s no scientific proof this could happen.
We need more research to realize the possible consequences of a flipping magnetic pole, Renne stated.
The new study is published in the Geophysical Journal International.