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
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.

NASA Probes Play the Music of Earth’s Magnetosphere

Launched on August 30, 2012, NASA’s twin Radiation Belt Storm Probe (RBSP) satellites have captured recordings of audible-range radio waves emitted by Earth’s magnetosphere. The stream of chirps and whistles heard in the video above consist of 5 separate occurrences captured on September 5 by RBSP’s Electric and Magnetic Field Instrument Suite and Integrated Science (EMFISIS) instrument.

The events are presented as a single continuous recording, assembled by the (EMFISIS) team at the University of Iowa and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Called a “chorus”, this phenomenon has been known for quite some time.

“People have known about chorus for decades,” says EMFISIS principal investigator Craig Kletzing of the University of Iowa. “Radio receivers are used to pick it up, and it sounds a lot like birds chirping. It was often more easily picked up in the mornings, which along with the chirping sound is why it’s sometimes referred to as ‘dawn chorus.’”

The radio waves, which are at frequencies that are audible to the human ear, are emitted by energetic particles within Earth’s magnetosphere, which in turn affects (and is affected by) the radiation belts.

The RBSP mission placed a pair of identical satellites into eccentric orbits that will take them from as low as 375 miles (603 km) to as far out as 20,000 miles (32,186 km). During their orbits the satellites will pass through both the stable inner and more variable outer Van Allen belts, one trailing the other. Along the way they’ll investigate the many particles that make up the belts and identify what sort of activity occurs in isolated locations — as well as across larger areas.

Read: New Satellites Will Tighten Knowledge of Earth’s Radiation Belts

Audio Credit: University of Iowa. Visualisation Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. (H/T to Peter Sinclair at climatecrocks.com.)

What Are The Radiation Belts?

NASA’s twin Radiation Belt Storm Probe (RBSP) satellites, scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Friday, August 24* at 4:08 a.m. ET, will enter into an eccentric orbit around our planet, repeatedly passing through both of the Van Allen radiation belts that surround Earth like enormous high-intensity particle filled inner tubes. The plasma contained within these belts can affect satellites, spacecraft and communication here on Earth, and are affected in turn by outbursts of solar energy from the Sun — especially during periods of solar maximum. But how do these invisible yet powerful radiation belts actually work, and how will two six-foot-wide satellites help us learn more about them? Watch the video.

(And then read more here.)

Video: NASA

*UPDATE: After several delays due to weather and technical issues, the RBSP mission successfully launched on Thursday, August 30.

New Satellites Will Tighten Knowledge of Earth’s Radiation Belts


Surrounding our planet like vast invisible donuts (the ones with the hole, not the jelly-filled kind) are the Van Allen radiation belts, regions where various charged subatomic particles get trapped by Earth’s magnetic fields, forming rings of plasma. We know that the particles that make up this plasma can have nasty effects on spacecraft electronics as well as human physiology, but there’s a lot that isn’t known about the belts. Two new satellites scheduled to launch on August 23 August 24 will help change that.

“Particles from the radiation belts can penetrate into spacecraft and disrupt electronics, short circuits or upset memory on computers. The particles are also dangerous to astronauts traveling through the region. We need models to help predict hazardous events in the belts and right now we are aren’t very good at that. RBSP will help solve that problem.”
– David Sibeck, RBSP project scientist, Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA’s Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission will put a pair of identical satellites into eccentric orbits that take them from as low as 375 miles (603 km) to as far out as 20,000 miles (32,186 km). During their orbits the satellites will pass through both the stable inner and more variable outer Van Allen belts, one trailing the other. Along the way they’ll investigate the many particles that make up the belts and identify what sort of activity occurs in isolated locations and across larger areas.

“Definitely the biggest challenge that we face is the radiation environment that the probes are going to be flying through,” said Mission Systems Engineer Jim Stratton at APL. “Most spacecraft try to avoid the radiation belts — and we’re going to be flying right through the heart of them.”

Read: The Van Allen Belts and the Great Electron Escape

Each 8-sided RBSP satellite is approximately 6 feet (1.8 meters) across and weighs 1,475 pounds (669 kg).

The goal is to find out where the particles in the belts originate from — do they come from the solar wind? Or Earth’s own ionosphere? — as well as to find out what powers the belts’ variations in size and gives the particles their extreme speed and energy. Increased knowledge about Earth’s radiation belts will also help in the understanding of the plasma environment that pervades the entire Universe.

Read: What Are The Radiation Belts?

Ultimately the information gathered by the RBSP mission will help in the design of future science and communications satellites as well as safer spacecraft for human explorers.

The satellites are slated to launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station no earlier than 4:08 a.m. EDT on August 24.

Find out more about the RBSP mission here.

Video/rendering: NASA/GSFC.