It appears the Earth’s magnetic poles are shifting and NASA cautions that the transition time before a full flip could produce numerous hazards to those around the globe. While the South Pole has been relatively stationary, the North Pole has been on the move. While it does tend to wobble a bit over time, moving on average at 5mph, it’s been racing from northern Canada towards Siberia at a geological rapid pace of about 35mph. Because the north magnetic pole has been moving so fast lately, scientists say that navigation systems such as GPS need to be updated very frequently. The moving pole is a problem for smartphones, consumer electronics, airplanes, and boats; all rely on GPS data that syncs with where the North Pole should be. But with the pole moving so quickly, updates to those GPS-related systems need to be made very frequently with the “current” location of the pole. One such update was made on Monday, roughly a year ahead of schedule.
While the short-term issue of moving poles can be trouble for GPS systems, there are far greater concerns for what appears to be an upcoming pole reversal.
The Earth’s magnetic field has flipped polarity many times over its existence. Scientists believe that this flip occurs every 200,000-300,000 years; geological records show that’s the case for at least the last 20 million years. However, it’s been more than 500,000 years since the last flip. Prior to that flip, the South Pole was really where the North Pole usually is while the North Pole is where the South Pole is. If you had a compass then, the north/south directions would appear opposite where they do today. And once the poles reverse, the same will be true in the future.
The Earth’s polarity is not constant due in part to its iron core. Filled with liquid, molten iron around a solid iron core, the Earth’s insides creates electrical currents which in turn create a magnetic field that surrounds the Earth. Beyond being an anchor for GPS systems that need to determine where magnetic north and south are, the Earth’s magnetic field plays an important role of shielding life from the dangers of space. The Earth’s magnetic field deflects most of the solar wind that bombards it from the sun. Without a magnetic field, charged particles in the solar wind could strip away important protective features of the earth’s atmosphere, including the Ozone Layer, which protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Without that field, anything powered by electricity and/or running on electricity could also fail. Nature could also be impacted: many animals and birds, such as bees, whales, salmon, and turtles depend on magnetic fields for their own navigation; disrupting where north and south are could send birds, fish, and animals on land in the wrong direction for food. While an instantaneous flip alone won’t be harmful to life on Earth, a protracted reversal of the north and south pole could leave Earth very vulnerable during that reserval transition time. Scientists believe such a reversal period could happen over a thousand year period; incredibly long for human life standards, but not so old for a planet that’s been around for 4.5 billion years. And during that transition, the magnetic field would be so weak that there wouldn’t be a true singular north and south pole. Instead, there would be pockets of magnetic activity of varying polarity.
While the Earth would still have a healthy atmosphere to absorb harmful radiation from space, a disturbed magnetic field would at the very least weaken the available protective field. Scientists are not sure just how weak that protective field will be and how much harmful radiation would reach Earth when the poles transition. While there are rumors of a doomsday with mass extinctions during such a pole reversal process, leading scientists at NASA and other organizations say there’s nothing to worry about for now. In dispelling doomsday theories, NASA issued a statement saying, “This suggestion mistakenly assumes that a pole reversal would momentarily leave Earth without the magnetic field that protects us from solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the sun. But, while Earth’s magnetic field can indeed weaken and strengthen over time, there is no indication that it has ever disappeared completely. A weaker field would certainly lead to a small increase in solar radiation on Earth – as well as a beautiful display of aurora at lower latitudes – but nothing deadly. Moreover, even with a weakened magnetic field, Earth’s thick atmosphere also offers protection against the sun’s incoming particles.”
While NASA cautions against doomsday scenarios where all life is wiped out, they do say conditions would be challenging for electronics, especially satellites that orbit just above the Earth’s surface. If the magnetic field shield weakened, satellites could become damaged or disrupted, knocking out communication and navigation systems. On Earth, failures could happen with the electrical grid or with other electronics systems in cars, planes, homes, and businesses. NASA is especially concerned for astronauts on the International Space Station which could be bombarded with lethal levels of radiation of the Earth’s magnetic field weakened significantly.