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The magnetic north and south poles are up to something. It looks like Earth’s magnetic poles are about to swap. It usually happens every 300,000 years or so but it’s been 780,000 years since it last happened. What does it mean for humans? Is this the end of human civilization?

Earth magnetic normal magnetic field (left) and during a swap (right)

Pole Reversal:  Another Y2K?

To answer this question let’s go back to 1984. That is the year that Jerome and Marilyn Murray published a book called Computers in Crisis, changed to The Year 2000 Computing Crisis in 1996. They laid out a problem of computer code that handled dates using only the last two digits of the year. The crisis was that at the moment the year 2000 began, they said all the computer networks around the world would crash. This was known as the Y2K problem.

The Y2K problem was a significant issue; however, because computer codes are constantly being changed, updated, and replaced, it probably would have been resolved without the hyper-scare stories in the media. Computer codes were changed and Y2K came and passed without incident.

That Y2K problem is a good comparison to the North/South magnetic pole reversal issue. There is a problem, but it is a problem that will unfold over hundreds to thousands of years. Most will not notice the effect in the next decade, but there is a significant change coming as soon as the next solar minimum.

Your Magnetic Field is Temporarily Out of Order

The problem is not about the reversal of the magnetic poles. The problem is about the process of the reversal. The magnetic field around Earth deflects cosmic and solar radiation from reaching Earth’s surface. Without this field (or shield) life, as we know it on Earth, would not be possible.

As the poles begin the process of swapping the magnetic field it becomes less organized. This results in the magnetic north and south pole fading and that causes cosmic radiation to come closer to Earth’s surface.

In addition, the magnetic field becomes weaker during solar sunspot minimums. This is when the Sun has few, if any, sunspots and generates less solar flares. This lull in solar activity approximately every eleven years is matched with a similar lull in the strength of Earth’s magnetic field.

Captain! Our Shields Are Down!

Scientists have discovered that the magnetic field is weakening much faster now than in the past. They believe the process of pole reversal, which is overdue by about 400,000 years, has now begun. We are also in the beginning stages of the solar minimum, which will result in an anemic magnetic field for the next two to three years.

Projections of the radiation dosage for this upcoming solar minimum were about 20% above the last solar minimum; however, actual rates are closer to 30% so far.  This is not a major concern, but it does mean that satellites may encounter more radiation that could damage or disable them. It also means that an astronaut only can spend about 700 days in space now than the 1,000 days they could spend in the 1990’s.

Oh Where, Oh Where Will Our North Pole Go?

The poles are on the move thanks to a liquid layer of iron in Earth’s Core.  Earth is already experiencing a strange phenomenon of magnetic weakening across the South Atlantic stretching from Africa to South America. Since we have not experienced this change before, no one can be absolutely sure what odd side effects may occur during the process; however, the only significant concern is increased radiation in Earth’s atmosphere and in orbit.

It’s important to remember that in geologic time frames we are the equivalent of lightning. As problems develop we’re pretty good at responding.