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Forget global warming, worry about the MAGNETOSPHERE: Earth’s magnetic field is collapsing and it could affect the climate and wipe out power grids

January 27, 2014
  • Earth’s magnetic field has weakened by 15  per cent over the last 200 years
  • Could be a sign that the planet’s north  and south poles are about to flip
  • If this happens, solar winds could punch holes into the Earth’s ozone layer
  • This could damage power grids, affect  weather and increase cancer rates
  • Evidence of flip happening in the past  has been uncovered in pottery
  • As the magnetic shield weakens, the  spectacle of an aurora would be visible every night all over the  Earth

Deep within the Earth, a fierce molten core  is generating a magnetic field capable of defending our planet against  devastating solar winds.

The protective field extends thousands of  miles into space and its magnetism affects everything from global communication  to animal migration and weather patterns.

But this magnetic field, so important to life  on Earth, has weakened by 15 per cent over the last 200 years. And this,  scientists claim, could be a sign that the Earth’s poles are about to flip.

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The Earth’s protective field extends thousands of miles  into space and its magnetism affects everything from global communication to  animal migration and weather patterns

Experts believe we’re currently overdue a  flip, but they’re unsure when this could occur.

If a switch happens, we would be exposed to  solar winds capable of punching holes into the ozone layer.

The impact could be devastating for mankind,  knocking out power grids, radically changing Earth’s climate and driving up  rates of cancer.

‘This is serious business’, Richard Holme,  Professor of Earth, Ocean and Ecological Sciences at Liverpool University told  MailOnline. ‘Imagine for a moment your electrical power supply was knocked out  for a few months – very little works without electricity these days.’

The Earth’s climate would change drastically.  In fact, a recent Danish study believes global warming is directly related to  the magnetic field rather than CO2 emissions.

The study claimed that the planet is  experiencing a natural period of low cloud cover due to fewer cosmic rays  entering the atmosphere.

The Earth’s magnetic field explained

Radiation at ground level would  also  increase, with some estimates suggesting overall exposure to cosmic  radiation  would double causing more deaths from cancer.

Researchers predict that in the event of a  flip, every year a hundred thousand  people would die from the increased levels  of space radiation.

‘Radiation could be 3-5 times greater than  that from the man-made ozone holes. Furthermore, the ozone holes would be larger  and longer-lived,’ said Dr Colin Forsyth  from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at UCL.

The magnetosphere is a large area around the Earth  produced by the planet’s magnetic field. It presence means that charged  particles of the solar wind are unable to cross the magnetic field lines and are  deflected around the Earth

Space  agencies are now taking the threat  seriously. In November, three  spacecraft were launched as part of the SWARM  mission to uncover how the Earth’s magnetic field is changing.

The mission plans to provide better maps of  our planet’s magnetic field and help scientists understand the impact of space  weather on satellite communication and GPS.

‘Whilst we have a basic understanding of the  interior of the Earth, there is much we still don’t know,’ said Dr  Forsyth.

‘We do not fully understand how the Earth’s  magnetic field is generated, why it is variable and the timescales of these  variations.’

The mission will provide a current map of  Earth’s magnetic field. But historic evidence of its decline has already been  found in a surprising source – ancient pottery.

Scientists have discovered that ancient pots  can act as a magnetic time capsule. This is because they contain an iron-based  mineral called magnetite. When pots form, the magnetite minerals align with the  Earth’s magnetic field, just like compass needles.

WHAT IS GEOMAGNETIC REVERSAL?

The Earth’s magnetic field is in a permanent  state of change. Magnetic north drifts around and every few hundred thousand  years the polarity flips so a compass would point south instead of north. The  strength of the magnetic field also constantly changes and currently it is  showing signs of significant weakening.

Geomagnetic reversal

The Earth magnetic field is mainly generated  in the very hot molten core of the planet. The magnetic field is basically a  dipole (it has a North and a South Pole). Magnetic reversal or flip is the  process by which the North Pole is transformed into the South and vice versa,  typically following a considerable reduction in the strength of the magnetic  field. However, weakening of the magnetic field does not always result in a  reversal.

During a reversal, scientists expect to see  more complicated field pattern at the Earth’s surface, with perhaps more than  one North and South Pole at any given time. The overall strength of the field,  anywhere on the Earth, may be no more than a tenth of its strength  now.

The Earth's magnetic field is generated in the very hot molten core of the planet. Scientists believe Mars used to have a magnetic field similar to that on Earth which protected its atmosphere

The Earth’s magnetic field is generated in the very hot  molten core of the planet. Scientists believe Mars used to have a magnetic field  similar to that on Earth which protected its atmosphere

By examining pottery from prehistory to  modern times, scientists have discovered just how dramatically the field has  changed in the last few centuries.

They’ve found that Earth’s magnetic field is  in a permanent state of flux. Magnetic north drifts and every few hundred  thousand years the polarity flips so a compass would point south instead of  north.

If the magnetic field continues to decline,  over billions of years, Earth could end up like Mars – a once oceanic world that  has become a dry, barren planet incapable of supporting life.

WHAT ARE THE DANGERS OF A MAGNETIC FLIP?

Pole reversal

Life has existed on the Earth for billions of  years, during which there have been many reversals.

There is no obvious correlation between  animal extinctions and those  reversals. Likewise, reversal patterns do not have  any correlation with  human development and evolution.

It appears that some animals, such as whales  and some birds use Earth’s  magnetic field for migration and direction finding.

Since geomagnetic  reversal takes a number of  thousands of years, they could well adapt to  the changing magnetic environment  or develop different methods of  navigation.

Radiation at ground level would increase,  however, with some estimates suggesting that overall  exposure to cosmic  radiation would double causing more deaths from  cancer. ‘But only slightly,’  said Professor Richard Holme.

‘And much less than lying on the beach in  Florida for a day. So if it  happened, the protection method would probably be  to wear a big floppy  hat.’

Electric grid collapse from severe solar  storms is a major risk. As the magnetic field continues to weaken, scientists  are highlighting the importance off-the grid energy systems using renewable  energy sources to protect the Earth against a black out.

‘The very highly charged particles can  have  a deleterious effect on the satellites and astronauts,’ added Dr  Mona Kessel, a  Magnetosphere discipline scientist at Nasa.

In one area, there is evidence  that a flip  is already occurring. ‘The increasing strength of the South  Atlantic anomaly,  an area of weak field over Brazil, is already a  problem,’ said Professor  Richard Holme.

The Earth’s climate could also change. A  recent Danish study has found that the earth’s weather has been significantly  affected by the planet’s magnetic field.

They claimed that fluctuations in the number  of cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere directly alter the amount of cloud  covering the planet.

Henrik Svensmark, a weather scientist at the  Danish National Space Centre who led the team behind the research, believes that  the planet is experiencing a natural period of low cloud cover due to fewer  cosmic rays entering the atmosphere.

But scientists claim the rate of decline is  too fast for the Earth’s core to simply burn out. Instead, the story told by  ancient pottery suggests the Earth’s poles could be about to undergo another  flip.

According to the British Geological Survey,  the Earth’s magnetic field has on average four or five reversals in polarity  every million years and we’re now overdue a similar event.

‘At the moment, we cannot accurately  determine whether or not the Earth’s field is about to flip,’ said Dr Forsyth.  ‘We have only been recording the Earth’s field for around 170 years; about 1-15  per cent of the time a flip is expected to take.’

If a flip occurs, it would cause the Earth’s  magnetic shield to be weakened for thousands of years, opening up our defences  and causing cosmic radiation to get through.

‘We have a double layer  defence shield,’ Jim Wild a space scientists at Lancaster University.

‘Space is full of stuff  that’s not great for biological tissue. If we didn’t have an atmosphere, that  stuff would be hitting us. It’s the magnetic field protects atmosphere from the  solar wind.’

Mapping the Earth’s magnetic field
‘Some speculative studies have suggested that  as the Earth’s magnetic field weakens we could see an increase in cloud coverage  in the troposphere and an increase in the polar ozone holes,’ added Dr Forsyth.

‘This would be particularly evident in the  northern hemisphere where up to 40 per cent of the ozone within the hole region  could be lost, far greater than the current losses.’

In fact, in one area, there is evidence that  a flip is already occurring. ‘The increasing strength of the South Atlantic  anomaly, an area of weak field over Brazil, is already a problem,’ said  Professor Holme.

Mapping the magnetic field: Why it matters
Not all of the effects of a weak magnetic field will be bad. The much sought-after spectacle of an aurora would be visible every night all over the Earth as solar winds hit the atmosphere
Not all of the effects of a weak magnetic field will be  bad. The much sought-after spectacle of an aurora would be visible every night  all over the Earth as solar winds hit the atmosphere

‘Satellites flying over have far more  problems than in other locations. Astrophysical satellite are just switched off  in this location, but from my perspective, this isn’t much good if you want to  study the Brazilian rainforest.’

‘The very highly charged particles can have a  deleterious effect on the satellites and astronauts,’ added Dr Mona Kessel, a  Magnetosphere discipline scientist at Nasa.

Scientists however, are quick to point out  that while a magnetic flip could cause problems for mankind, the event won’t be  a catastrophic.

‘We’ve had many reversals in the past, and  haven’t been able to show that they had anything to do with, for example, mass  extinctions,’ said Professor Holme.

And not all of the effects will be bad. The  much sought-after spectacle of an aurora would be visible every night all over  the Earth as solar winds hit the atmosphere.

There remains, however, much work yet to be  done in understanding the properties of the deep Earth.

The Earth’s core is a hostile world where the  crushing forces and temperatures, similar to that of the surface of the sun,  take our scientific understanding and abilities to the limit.

‘This isn’t some crazy theory that might  happen,’ said Professor Wild. ‘There is evidence, but we still need to do more  science to understand the impact…I’m confidence we can come up with a  solution.’

WHAT IS THE SWARM MISSION?

The SWARM mission

Swarm is a ESA satellite mission which was  launched on 22nd November 2013.

The mission consists of three identical  satellites which will precisely  measure the strength and direction of Earth’s  magnetic field. The new  data will be processed by British Geological Survey to  produce an  accurate map of this field.

In order to best measure the field, the  satellites will orbit in a unique  configuration. Two satellites will fly  side-by-side at height of 450 km, while the third satellite will fly at an  altitude of 530 km.

The lower two satellites will allow very fine  measurements of the magnetic  field generated by the rocks in the Earth’s crust,  which are difficult  to detect otherwise. The upper satellite will give a  simultaneous  measurement at a different location.

CREDIT TO:  Ellie Zolfagharifard / MAIL Online
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