Is Earth’s Magnetic Field Ready to Flip?

Article written: 13 May , 2016
Updated: 15 May , 2016
by
Illustration of the invisible magnetic field lines generated by the Earth. Unlike a classic bar magnet, the matter governing Earth's magnetic field moves around. The flow of liquid iron in Earth's core creates electric currents, which in turn creates the magnetic field. Credit and copyright: Peter Reid, University of Edinburgh

Illustration of the invisible magnetic field lines generated by the Earth. Unlike a classic bar magnet, the matter governing Earth’s magnetic field moves around. The flow of liquid iron in Earth’s core creates electric currents, which in turn creates the magnetic field. Credit and copyright: Peter Reid, University of Edinburgh

Although invisible to the eye, Earth’s magnetic field plays a huge role in both keeping us safe from the ever-present solar and cosmic winds while making possible the opportunity to witness incredible displays of the northern lights. Like a giant bar magnet, if you could sprinkle iron filings around the entire Earth, the particles would align to reveal the nested arcs of our magnetic domain. The same field makes your compass needle align north to south.

We can picture our magnetic domain as a huge bubble, protecting us from cosmic radiation and electrically charged atomic particles that bombard Earth in solar winds. Satellites and instruments on the ground keep a constant watch over this bubble of magnetic energy surrounding our planet. For good reason: it’s always changing.

Earth's magnetic field is thought to be generated by an ocean of super-heated, swirling liquid iron that makes up its the outer core 1,860 miles (3000 kilometers) under our feet. Acting like the spinning conductor in one of those bicycle dynamos or generators that power lights, it generates electrical currents and a constantly changing electromagnetic field. Other sources of magnetism come from minerals in Earth’s mantle and crust, while the ionosphere, magnetosphere and oceans also play a role. The three Swarm satellites precisely identify and measure precisely these different magnetic signals. Copyright: ESA/ATG Medialab

Earth’s magnetic field is thought to be generated by an ocean of super-heated, swirling liquid iron that makes up its the outer core 1,860 miles (3000 kilometers) under our feet. Acting like the spinning conductor similar to a bicycle dynamo that powers a headlight, it generates electrical currents and a constantly changing electromagnetic field. Other sources of magnetism come from minerals in Earth’s mantle and crust, while the ionosphere, magnetosphere and oceans also play a role. The three Swarm satellites precisely identify and measure precisely these different magnetic signals. Copyright: ESA/ATG Medialab

The European Space Agency’s Swarm satellite trio, launched at the end of 2013, has been busy measuring and untangling the different magnetic signals from Earth’s core, mantle, crust, oceans, ionosphere (upper atmosphere where the aurora occurs) and magnetosphere, the name given to the region of space dominated by Earth’s magnetic field.

At this week’s Living Planet Symposium in Prague, Czech Republic, new results from the constellation of Swarm satellites show where our protective field is weakening and strengthening, and how fast these changes are taking place.


Based on results from ESA’s Swarm mission, the animation shows how the strength of Earth’s magnetic field has changed between 1999 and mid-2016. Blue depicts where the field is weak and red shows regions where the field is strong. The field has weakened by about 3.5% at high latitudes over North America, while it has grown about 2% stronger over Asia. Watch also the migration of the north geomagnetic pole (white dot).

Between 1999 and May 2016 the changes are obvious. In the image above, blue depicts where the field is weak and red shows regions where it is strong. As well as recent data from the Swarm constellation, information from the CHAMP and Ørsted satellites were also used to create the map.


The animation shows changes in the rate at which Earth’s magnetic field strengthened and weakened between 2000 and 2015. Regions where changes in the field have slowed are shown in blue while red shows where changes sped up. For example, in 2015 changes in the field have slowed near South Africa but changes got faster over Asia. This map has been compiled using data from ESA’s Swarm mission.

The animation show that overall the field has weakened by about 3.5% at high latitudes over North America, while it has strengthened about 2% over Asia. The region where the field is at its weakest – the South Atlantic Anomaly – has moved steadily westward and weakened further by about 2%. Moreover, the magnetic north pole is also on the move east, towards Asia. Unlike the north and south geographic poles, the magnetic poles wander in an erratic way, obeying the movement of sloshing liquid iron and nickel in Earth’s outer core. More on that in a minute.

The ‘South Atlantic Anomaly’ refers to an area where Earth's protective magnetic shield is weak. The white spots on this map indicate where electronic equipment on a TOPEX/Poseidon satellite was affected by radiation as it orbited above. Credit: ESA/DTU Space

The ‘South Atlantic Anomaly’ refers to an area where Earth’s protective magnetic shield is weak. The white spots on this map indicate where electronic equipment on a TOPEX/Poseidon satellite was affected by radiation as it orbited above. The colors indicate the strength of the planet’s magnetic field with red the highest value and blue the lowest.  Credit: ESA/DTU Space

The anomaly is a region over above South America, about 125-186 miles (200 – 300 kilometers) off the coast of Brazil, and extending over much of South America, where the inner Van Allen radiation belt dips just 125-500 miles (200 – 800 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface. Satellites passing through the anomaly experience extra-strong doses of radiation from fast-moving, charged particles.

This cutaway of planet Earth shows the familiar exterior of air, water and land as well as the interior: from the mantle down to the outer and inner cores. Currents in hot, liquid iron-nickel in the outer core create our planet's protective but fluctuating magnetic field. Credit: Kelvinsong / Wikipedia

This cutaway of planet Earth shows the familiar exterior of air, water and land as well as the interior: from the mantle down to the outer and inner cores. Currents in hot, liquid iron-nickel in the outer core create our planet’s protective but fluctuating magnetic field. Credit: Kelvinsong / Wikipedia

The magnetic field is thought to be produced largely by an ocean of molten, swirling liquid iron that makes up our planet’s outer core, 1,860 miles (3000 kilometers) under our feet. As the fluid churns inside the rotating Earth, it acts like a bicycle dynamo or steam turbine. Flowing material within the outer core generates electrical currents and a continuously changing electromagnetic field. It’s thought that changes in our planet’s magnetic field are related to the speed and direction of the flow of liquid iron and nickel in the outer core.

Chris Finlay, senior scientist at DTU Space in Denmark, said, “Swarm data are now enabling us to map detailed changes in Earth’s magnetic field. Unexpectedly, we are finding rapid localized field changes that seem to be a result of accelerations of liquid metal flowing within the core.”

The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on every day life. The field can be thought of as a huge bubble, protecting us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth in solar winds. It’s shaped by winds of particles blowing from the sun called the solar wind, the reason it’s flattened on the “sun-side” and swept out into a long tail on the opposite side of the Earth. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on every day life. The field can be thought of as a huge bubble, protecting us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth in solar winds. It’s shaped by winds of particles blowing from the sun called the solar wind, the reason it’s flattened on the “sun-side” and swept out into a long tail on the opposite side of the Earth. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Further results are expected to yield a better understanding as why the field is weakening in some places, and globally. We know that over millions of years, magnetic poles can actually flip with north becoming south and south north. It’s possible that the current speed up in the weakening of the global field might mean it’s ready to flip.

Although there’s no evidence previous flips affected life in a negative way, one thing’s for sure. If you wake up one morning and find your compass needle points south instead of north, it’s happened.

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65 Responses

  1. Les says

    Signs? Timeline?

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  2. Les says

    Signs? Timeline?

  3. Ahab deArab says

    Global Warming!

    • Mike Hillsgrove says

      Not related. Every 12000 years or so it does this and we happen to be a bit overdue.

      • Jade says

        “Not related. Every 12000 years or so it does this and we happen to be a bit overdue.”

        Prove it. I guess it’t would be very difficult to tax a magnetic field reversal>

      • Al C says

        sediment on the ocean floor indicates this. Do the research yourself.

      • SteveK says

        On average, it happens every 400,000 years, though it has varied from 25,000 to 40 million years. The transition can take anywhere from a lifetime (ours) to several hundred years. During that time, the magnetic field can drop to as low as 5% of normal. Extinctions aren’t documented, but that reduced protection from solar radiation could mess with electronics. And you might get quite a tan.

  4. ectogamit says

    the magnetic field will drop when the flip happens making us more vulnerable to the sun.

    • Al C says

      no it won’t, the particles just change their direction, they don’t go away.

      • MarionE says

        Actually, most studies suggest that the field would experience a temporary interruption, and that several magnetic poles would form in different locations before stabilizing. During “the flip” the Earth would certainly be more vulnerable to solar radiation.

  5. Susan says

    so……will we feel the flipping? will water spill out from the oceans and lakes, will buildings fall over? that is the kind of thing I want to know.

    • Antonio Nafarrate says

      Susan see my earlier comment and check the website animalnav dot org and look for my postings. Have a good time.

    • Joseph says

      Ow…my head.

    • MarionE says

      The article discusses a magnetic pole shift; not geographical. A compass would point to the current South, instead of North, and a lot of electronic devices would probably stop working. Physically, you would be unlikely to notice until you attempt to browse Facebook or Twitter for a status update.

      • Red says

        I doubt that just because the poles flip that all the electronic devices in the world would blow up or “not work anymore”. Thats a bunch of hogwash. Not only that, but data shows that the magnetic field never disappears, it only changes direction, so dont expect your electronics to get bricked anyway. Magnets will still work, generators will still work, and any electronic device from before or after 1950 and any car built before or after 1990 will still work. If anything “did” happen, we have surge protectors and grounding rods for a reason, but I seriously doubt anything would given how electricity works anyway. Also, consider this, we fly probes way out into space all the time, if a stellar body’s magnetic field had any sway over them, they would never have been able to go to half of the planets in our solar system.

        Further, I have yet to see modern electronics ever stop working just by waving a big magnet or electromagnet right by them. The only thing I ever saw happen was with a VHS tape and an old magnetic tape hard drive. At best, the only thing that could happen would be that all of our classic VHS tapes and all of our magnetic based films/hard drives will be wiped clean which could still affect the internet and data centers as magnetic tape is still used due to certain capabilities that disks will never have. Even then, the world isnt going to end.

      • Member
        Jeffrey Boerst says

        Oh, REALLY?! Y2K happened, didn’t it….??? DIDN’T IT?????? lol! (JK)

  6. Dan says

    In reality we really don’t know much about the magnetic poles, why they reverse, how long such a process actually takes and if there is any cause for alarm. It hasn’t happened in recorded history so it’s all just speculation.

    • Al C says

      sediment particles on the ocean floor show a reversal in the way the particles align. It is not just blind speculation there is very good evidence to support this idea. Besides, speculation doesn’t mean something is wrong.

      • Cryo says

        He never implied that the poles flipping was speculation, just that what exactly the process involves and how it might affect us is down to speculation.

        Maybe it will be something that takes a relatively short time and is relatively harmless, aside from disruptions to navigation and so on. Or maybe it will be something that exposes the earth to harmful levels of radiation for centuries on end, causing widespread health issues, disabling electronic devices, and potentially causing the collapse of modern civilization as we know it.

      • R. Palmer says

        So, experts, when is it going to happen? Window?

      • Attila says

        Read “The HAB Theory” Flipping the poles could have an immediate negative impact on electronics, computer chips, navigation, and electrical production, like an EMP.

      • Member
        Jeffrey Boerst says

        That’s a science fiction novel….

  7. Ari says

    The only thing the flips with magnetic fields is the PC/EU lot!

  8. Antonio Nafarrate says

    The Geomagnetic Field (GMF) is very erratic and noisy and has reversed many times, as recorded in the magnetic materials on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
    Many scientists support the idea that many animal species use the GMF as a navigational cue. I think they are wrong. I am one of the Editors on the Website animalnav dot org and I support the models that time navigation with their Circadian Clocks and use Gravity as their only cue. Open my Website and in the Home page Search box enter “Gravity” and see my postings and others that support my Inertial model.

  9. Kyle B says

    hmm Something tells me that this won’t be a problem when the ice melts, maybe we should try to increase the emission that leads to global warming instead of trying to reduce it 😉

  10. Kyle B says

    hmm Something tells me that this won’t be a problem when the ice melts, maybe we should try to increase the emission that leads to global warming instead of trying to reduce it 😉

  11. Automatic Steam says

    The recent shift in earth’s axis (think ‘gyroscope’) is the magnetic response of earth attempting to keep; pull itself upright against changing isostasy. Earth’s isostasy is being altered primarily due to weight shift due to glacial ice loss. At a point of continental ice reduction, particularly at Antarctica, the magnetic ability of Earth to right itself will be overcome by centrifugal forces, and the tectonic plates will shift to rebalance the earth’s rotation and stabilize the axis. If polarity flip takes place, it will be secondary to the restructuring of the earth’s surface by way of relocation, sinking, and folding of her tectonic plates with relation to one another. This is not man-made warming glaciers and melting them from beneath. Rather an it is due to an energy saturated, superheated, excited core. Net thermal (and other) energy exchange has already reversed flow from uptake to the core, to giving up; radiating out from Earth’s core. The magma has heated too as a result, and expanded, and convection currents therein greatly accelerated. We are at close of the Holocene, and the threshold of the new geological Epoch.

  12. Automatic Steam says

    The recent shift in earth’s axis (think ‘gyroscope’) is the magnetic response of earth attempting to keep; pull itself upright against changing isostasy. Earth’s isostasy is being altered primarily due to weight shift due to glacial ice loss. At a point of continental ice reduction, particularly at Antarctica, the magnetic ability of Earth to right itself will be overcome by centrifugal forces, and the tectonic plates will shift to rebalance the earth’s rotation and stabilize the axis. If polarity flip takes place, it will be secondary to the restructuring of the earth’s surface by way of relocation, sinking, and folding of her tectonic plates with relation to one another. This is not man-made warming glaciers and melting them from beneath. Rather an it is due to an energy saturated, superheated, excited core. Net thermal (and other) energy exchange has already reversed flow from uptake to the core, to giving up; radiating out from Earth’s core. The magma has heated too as a result, and expanded, and convection currents therein greatly accelerated. We are at close of the Holocene, and the threshold of the new geological Epoch.

    • Member
      TomArt says

      This does not make sense. First, the magnetic pole reversal is not a physical reversal of the Earth itself. It is apparently a result of outer core material flows that shift periodically. Second, these periods between flips last for a few microseconds in geologic terms. Plate tectonics operates on a timescale that is many, many orders of magnitude larger, and therefore essentially independent of, magnetic pole reversal. The sediment cores from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to the Continental shelves, teach us that much. The record is kept there, while the plates kept doing their thing, a few millimeters at a time per year, regardless of the magnetic pole orientation. Third, it is true that rising sea levels (even tides) do have small geologic effects, including increasing the rate at which the Earth’s rotation slows down, since the oceans bulge at the Equator, putting more mass toward the edge and slowing us down, like a ballerina extending her arms outward (instead of having that extra mass of water locked up as ice at the poles). However, that change is on the order of nanoseconds per century, and so far, does not appear to have a measurable effect on the Earth’s core. Also, I am not aware of any data that would positively correlate rising and falling sea levels with magnetic pole reversals.

  13. BCstargazer says

    Thank you Bob
    But the question that is on everyone’s mind remain unanswered:
    Will this flip affect Trump’s hair?
    :mrgreen:

    • Bob King says

      BC,
      No, I believe the that’s jelled down firmly 😉

      • Justin Caase says

        Hillary’s lies have been getting bigger and told in such increasing quanity that they have become magnetically sensitive. There have been so many told recently that they are affecting the magnetic pole and some scientists think this has slowed the natural shifting of the polls.

      • Member
        Jeffrey Boerst says

        Not to mention old Bill’s loins….

  14. GuyB says

    Since our understanding of magnetic pole flipping events is based solely upon studies of the magnetic echoes in sediment deposition? Our methods do not have either the accuracy nor the precision to tell us much more than, “Such things happen, periodically”.

    However, since changes in a Magnetic Field’s strength do the exact same thing that moving a conductor through a fixed magnetic field? Unless it takes decades, during the flipping of the poles, every long distance transmission line in the grid would be generating DC current. Depending upon how fast it happened, that could range from catastrophic and instantaneous failure of every grid, to minor increases in failure and maintenance.

    • Member
      TomArt says

      Bad things of that nature could happen, but I do not get the impression that your analogy applies. The flow of material in the outer core, and the generated electric currents, do not appear to move around like a solid bar magnet. Like any fluid flow, even highly viscous flow, there is going to be eddy currents, turbulence, and/or just unstable regions of material flow. When the poles “flip”, it will not be exactly like turning a bar magnet 180 degrees, end-to-end.

      Like others have commented here, and based on sedimentary data (I’d love to see a comprehensive paper with informative graphs), the pole flip will most likely take place over a geologically short, fairly-well-delineated timeframe. The relative uniformity of the magnetic field will most likely break down, where there will probably be multiple north and south magnetic poles quasi-randomly forming at any number of a variety of directions before the outer core material flows (we think) will settle down into an orientation where the north and south magnetic poles will be in essentially opposite locations to where they are now.

  15. Mike says

    So this means my toilet will swirl the other way correct?

    • SwingyThingy says

      Providing your still around to flush it. If the poles reversing come from the earths plates balancing the earths rotation you may not be around to know. Im sure republicans will get blamed for that too. Millennials will be looking at the phone going come on Face Book load.

  16. Doesn\'t matter says

    If this happens I guess the sun will rise in the west, set in the east and my farts won’t burn anymore.

  17. Butchwax says

    Ah yes, the semi-annual flipping poles piece. This reminds me, aren’t we a few days overdue for the latest Yellowstone Caldera story?

    • Bob King says

      Butchwax,
      Yes, there have been a lot of pole flip stories, but the purpose of this story was to share the news from the Swarm satellites.

  18. jon says

    Would love some other opinions on whether or not this may be effected by the LHC . If you check out BPEarthwatch on youtube you can see some pretty well informed videos that help substantiate such an idea.

    • Member
      TomArt says

      The LHC accelerates accelerates a very modest current of protons over short periods of time, weeks and sometimes months apart. It’s effect is laughably small. Besides, it’s not the only large particle accelerator currently functioning in the world, not to mention all the synchrotrons in the world running for substantial periods of time throughout the year.

    • Member
      Jeffrey Boerst says

      They aren’t well informed at all, as anyone that knows even a little about the LHC and science behind it realizes that’s all crackpot nonsense.

    • Matt Hunt says

      Earth is hit with high-atmosphere cosmic rays hundreds of times per day that far outweigh anything we’ve accomplished in the LHC as to date…and we’re still here.

  19. Just keep power on and the force shield up don’t let the sun go down on me.

  20. zabroski says

    people in Washington they flip much faster

  21. Scott says

    what’s your take?

  22. Truk says

    It turns all PCs into Macs and all Macs into PCs

  23. Attila says

    Here we sit on a massively powerful dynamo, rotating magnetic fields spinning in space, surrounded by an external magnetic field supplied by the Sun. Why haven’t we figured out how to tap that electrical generator for power? Is JP Morgan holding this back as well?

  24. Alexander says

    This planet goes through periodic changes that can be seen throughout millennia, changes in the magnetic poles to be included. What I’d like to hear about is your hypothesis on the effects of this event. Will this cause any kind of natural disaster (i.e.: earth quakes, changes in weather patterns, etc…)? Will GPS systems require immediate recalibration? How will wildlife be affected? Will there be a technological breakdown causing the grounding or loss of navigational systems of our aircraft?

    I would love to hear your thoughts, Mr. King!

    • Bob King says

      Alexander,
      A tall order of questions! If the magnetic field temporarily disappeared during a reversal, auroras would occur at all latitudes and more cosmic rays would penetrate to the ground. Since this increased penetration currently happens at the poles without apparent harm to those who are there, the increase may have little affect. And while we do get protection from cosmic rays by the magnetosphere, the sun and its domain called the heliosphere are our chief protectors.

      Past field reversals appear to have had no noticeable affect on life as far as we can tell. No mass extinctions anyway. I suspect satellite electronics would be more vulnerable, too. While our magnetic field does protect us from dangerous space radiation, it’s not our only defense. The atmosphere also plays an important role in protecting us.

      If the entire field were lost for a long time, solar winds would slowly strip away our atmosphere and then we’d be in trouble.

  25. Terry says

    I saw a TV show once that told about how either the Air Force or satellites had for the first time used sensors to map the true shape of the land underneath all the ice for Antarctica. The map basically lined up with a map from around 1500 of the fabled continent of Atlantis. Weird.

  26. loren avey says

    Earth’s schedule is every precise, every 26,000 years a minor, every 52-54,000 years major. we right on time for the next major, all this determined by the group at the south pole that have been drilling into the layers of ice.

  27. N.B. says

    Dear Bob,

    This picture with the following text, what does blue and red mean in it? What is the legend of the figure?

    “The ‘South Atlantic Anomaly’ refers to an area where Earth’s protective magnetic shield is weak. The white spots on this map indicate where electronic equipment on a TOPEX/Poseidon satellite was affected by radiation as it orbited above. Credit: ESA/DTU Space”

    • Bob King says

      Hi N.B.,
      Good question! It was my oversight not to include a description. I’ve changed the caption now to reflect that. The colors represent the strength of the local magnetic field in nanoteslas (nT) with blue the lowest and red the highest.

  28. John says

    There is speculation that Mars had an atmosphere similar to Earth until a flux reversal stalled midway and the remaining magnetic field wasn’t cohesive enough to keep the solar wind from stripping it away.

    • Bob King says

      John,
      I had read that Mars being smaller meant it cooled faster, causing the fluid motions in its outer core to shut down and the field to fail.

      • John says

        There is no end to the theories about Mars. Maybe it lost a moon and the resulting wobble in its axis caused the magnetic field to disappear. It will be a great thing when we set foot on Mars and can begin to answer some of these questions definitively.

      • Matt Hunt says

        I think the biggest reason for Mar’s magnetosphere failure is, other than it’s smaller size, is lack of a significant moon. Our Moon is about 1/4 of Earth diameter and 1/81st of Earth’s mass and probably helps keeps the core churning. Without our Moon, Earth too may have solidified like Mars. Mars still has “patches” of higher magnetic fields though.

  29. anti-communists says

    Everyone should prey that bernie “farty” sanders will be presient at that time and he will make sure that in the COMMUNIST PRA (People’s Republic of America…ex USA) everyone will get an equal share of magnetic field…he will take a big chunk from the hard working citizen and distribute it to the leaches who don’t want to work and want “equality”

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