Categories: AstronomyNews

Is Earth’s Magnetic Field Ready to Flip?

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 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. 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

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

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.

Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

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