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Earth’s Magnetic Field
This protective bubble shields Earth from radiation that’s constantly streaming from the sun. In the planet’s 4.6-billion-year history, the field has frequently flipped, swapping magnetic north and south, and some research suggests that another flip may be on the geological horizon. While fears of a looming geomagnetic apocalypse are overblown, a magnetic reversal could have many damaging impacts, from increased radiation exposure to technological disruptions, which makes understanding these historic flips more than just a scientific curiosity.
Earth’s Restless Poles
Earth’s magnetic field is charged by the churn of the molten iron and nickel of our planet’s outer core, some 1,800 miles below the surface. Over the years, the field’s turns and tumbles have been captured by iron-rich minerals attuned to magnetic influences, which can become trapped in place as sedimentary rocks form or lava cools, like tiny compass needles frozen in time.
Based on this rocky record, our poles haven’t switched places in some 780,000 years, but they’ve been restless in the past, reversing every 200,000 years or so. There are also prolonged periods when the poles largely stayed put, such as a 40-million-year block of time during the Jurassic period.
Gallet and his colleagues first visited the site in the early 2000s, collecting around 119 samples from the nearly vertical face of rock. This work revealed a period during the Middle Cambrian that saw at least six to eight field reversals every million years. In the summer of 2016, they returned to do more collecting - some 550 small blocks of rock every four to eight inches. Analysis of the magnetic signatures confirmed their suspicion: Over the three million years captured in their samples, they detected a striking 78 field reversals. And 22 of the samples record only one reversal, he notes, hinting that perhaps the true rate is even higher.
For now, the new study offers more questions than answers. It’s unclear why the field was so hyper at that time and, even more intriguingly, why it settled back down quickly. One possibility is that these early flips are tied to the cooling and crystallization of the planet’s solid inner core. While many studies suggest this likely began 600 or 700 million years ago, perhaps the intense flipping in the Middle Cambrian came from a late period of inner core formation. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty.
The only other time period with comparably high reversals, known as the Ediacaran, occurred some 550 to 560 million years ago, a time that intriguingly lines up with a mass die-off of life. Studies suggest that the flip-flopping magnetic field of the Ediacaran was extremely weak, which might have exposed early life on Earth to punishing surface conditions. But no mass extinction coincides with the newly proposed hyperactive flipping in the Middle Cambrian, when life was blooming in a myriad of forms. Maybe evolution gave those creatures a helping hand, he suggests, resulting in the burst of burrowers and other animals who could seek shelter from harmful solar rays. But at this point, he says, it’s all conjecture.
One curious pattern is that there seems to be some cyclicality to the changes, with prolonged periods without flips happening roughly every 150 million years. Between these delays, the field seems to flip at a rate as fast as five times every million years, and these periods are then punctuated with hyperactive spurts.
Based on these rough cycles, it seems Earth’s magnetic field might be headed toward another period of hyperactivity, Meert says, but he cautions that much remains uncertain. And even if a reversal is on the horizon, each one happens in slow motion from our perspective, with the poles shifting places over several thousand years.