Earth's Magnetic Poles May Reverse Soon and the Consequences Could Be Deadly

Tuesday, 30 January 2018 - 10:21AM
Science News
Tuesday, 30 January 2018 - 10:21AM
Earth's Magnetic Poles May Reverse Soon and the Consequences Could Be Deadly
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Image credit: YouTube

Things aren't looking good for planet Earth right now.

On top of all the other natural disasters and environmental dangers that threaten humanity, we now have something else to worry about. New research from the University of Leeds in the UK suggests that the planet may not be far away from a major incident in which the Earth's magnetic poles switch, so that what is currently the North Pole will become the South Pole, and vice versa.

Switches of this nature are not uncommon in the general lifespan of the planet, but we haven't seen a full switch in around 700,000 years. The closest we came was a temporary switch around 40,000 years ago, but this quickly flipped back.

Despite the length of time since the last polar flip, scientists estimate that this event occurs once every 200,000 or 300,000 years—in other words, we're long, long overdue another switch.

As part of their research, the scientists involved with this new report noted a general weakening of the Earth's magnetic field over time, at a rate of around 5 percent per century. This, they argue, suggests that we're not very far away from another flip, at which point, the planet's magnetic field could dip even further in strength for a period of at least a hundred years.

This is bad news for anyone who enjoys life without radiation sickness.

The Earth's magnetic field is a barrier which shields us from a lot of harmful solar radiation, attracting cosmic rays towards our planet's poles so that they shoot harmlessly past us without doing too much damage. If the field were to become weak enough during this transitional period, more radiation would bake the planet than we're typically used to, which could ultimately render large parts of the Earth uninhabitable for a long time to come.

What's more, our technology won't fare too well once the magnetic field begins to weaken—orbital satellites in particular will suffer from solar buffeting without the convenient protection that's currently provided by the Earth's magnetic field. Down on the planet itself, things could get hectic too—solar flares would do more damage than normal, overloading power grids, causing computers to fail, and generally running amok.

This wouldn't be a small global problem that would pass harmlessly afterwards. Because it takes hundreds of years for the planet's poles to stabilize, entire generations of humans would be constantly affected, unable to use the technology that has become, and will continue to become, such a large part of our lives.

The good news in all this is that we're probably not quite ready for a magnetic flip just yet. Scientists estimate that we're against the clock here and that the switch will happen at some point in the next 2,000 years or so, but if we're lucky, we should be able to escape unharmed.

The danger will come for future generations, though, and if humanity wants to continue to survive indefinitely, we're going to need to come up with some inventive solutions to this problem while we still have plenty of time to organize ourselves.

Otherwise, we'll be completely unprepared when our lives get flipped, turned upside down.

Science News