Science

NASA: The North and South Poles Might Be About to Flip For the First Time in 800,000 Years

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According to scientists, the magnetic north pole is shifting by 30-40 miles a year (depending on which source you’re looking at), which means it’s moving faster than at any time in human history. If you’ve seen headlines like this before you may be concerned the entire world is going to flip upside down. Some places have sensationalized this headline and made it seem as if the world is going to end in some sort of geomagnetic apocalypse. Do not fret. We’re not all going to die! (At least, not yet.)

800,000 Years

The magnetic poles have changed places hundreds of times before now, the most recent approximately 780,000 years ago. Basically, if you had been alive roughly 800,000 years ago and were facing what we call north with a magnetic compass in your hand, the needle of the compass would point ‘south.’

Exception, or rule?

NASA’s website says, ‘Reversals are the rule, not the exception.’ They elaborate that ‘scientists estimate reversals have happened at least hundreds of times over the past three billion years.’ The magnetic north pole has been slowly moving northward – by more than 600 miles (1,100 km) – since the early 19th century when explorers first located it precisely. It is now moving faster than in the early 20th century. Scientists estimate the pole is migrating northward about 40 miles per year, as opposed to the late 1900s where it moved about 10 miles per year.

The Science

We now look to Vincent Hare who recently completed a postdoctoral associate appointment in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES) at the University of Rochester. He is the lead author of a paper addressing changes in the earth’s magnetic field and says ‘We’ve known for quite some time that the magnetic field has been changing, but we didn’t really know if this was unusual […] on a longer timescale, or whether it was normal.’ He goes on to say ‘we now know this unusual behavior has occurred at least a couple of times before the past 160 years, and is part of a bigger long-term pattern. However, it’s simply too early to say for certain whether this behavior will lead to a full pole reversal.’

Weakened Shield

The Earth’s magnetic field protects the planet from dangerous solar and cosmic rays, as if it were a giant shield. With the poles moving so quickly, the field is weakened, meaning we could be exposed to more of the ‘bad’ rays coming from the sun. This assumes, however, that the field doesn’t strengthen and weaken over time as a matter of course. Luckily, NASA indicates that it does and there is no indication that it has ever disappeared completely. ‘Moreover’, says NASA, ‘even with a weakened magnetic field, Earth’s thick atmosphere also offers protection against the sun’s incoming particles.’

How will this impact us?

The main issue that we’ll notice is that the needle on your compass will tell you that North is in Antarctica and South is somewhere in Canada, which will be confusing at first. Hopefully, this doesn’t throw the American continents into an identity crisis, but we can cross that bridge if we come to it. Luckily, it shouldn’t affect our GPS devices or anything in mid or low altitudes.

Animal magnetism

One more side effect of this flipping of the magnetic poles is that animals relying on magnetic fields for navigation, such as birds flying ‘South’ for the winter, salmon, and sea turtles, could find themselves losing track of where they’re going on their seasonal trips. Luckily, this should sort itself out over time. National Geographic reminds us that ‘lots of doomsday prophets have tried to equate geomagnetic flips with mass extinctions, but the data just aren’t there,’ which is something to keep in mind when you begin to panic. Fossils from 780,000 years ago, when the poles are last said to have shifted entirely, show no drastic changes in plant or animal life. This leads scientists to believe that there is no reason it should drastically change the world as we know it should it happen again in the future.

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