Doomsday scenarios about the end of the world can include anything from an apocalypse causing, planet-shattering asteroid to a self-inflicted nuclear winter. But as reported by Science Alert, there’s been a lot of talk recently about the possibility that the Earth magnetic field might flip in the near future, resulting in disaster. But despite the hyperbole, is this likely, and would it really be the end of the world or just an annoyance?
News stories of a flipped magnetic field allowing the sun to flood the Earth with mutation-causing radiation may appeal to those hoping for an X-Men-style apocalyptic future in which they have mutant powers. But the reality of what we would face in such a potential flip of the magnetic poles on planet Earth is very different.
Not Really Facing the End
Of the world devastating calamities the planet has experienced over the last few hundred million years, flips of the magnetic field on Earth hardly seem to rank high among apocalypse-causing heavy hitters. It’s not even in the same league.
None of the end-of-the-world scenarios that nearly wiped out life on the ancient Earth – including the one that killed off the dinosaurs 66 million years ago – seemed to involve the flipping of the magnetic field. Instead, such mass extinctions are usually attributed to asteroid strikes, increased volcanism, climatic change, disease, and other causes.
Over the last few million years, flips of the Earth’s magnetic poles have happened at a rate of about one every 250,000 years. It is true that we are a bit overdue for a full flip of the Earth magnetic field, and there are indications that the poles have begun to shift at a faster rate in recent decades – perhaps indicating that a flip is imminent.
No magnetic field flips on Earth have occurred in recorded human history. But life not only survived these flips when they did happen, but the archaeological and paleontological record also indicates that life seems to have not been significantly impacted at all.
It’s also a fact that a little over 40,000 years ago, a partial and temporary flip occurred for roughly 1,000 years. Anatomically modern human beings were around at that point in history and obviously survived this “doomsday” event without too much trouble.
If Not the End, Then What?
So if a flip of the Earth’s magnetic field isn’t the end of the world scenario the tabloids are screaming about, just what kind of impact will it actually have on the Earth if the magnetic poles do flip? The answer is “not much.”
As reported by the Daily Galaxy, a flip of the Earth magnetic field is not going to, despite the popular misconception, happen overnight. Scientists believe that it takes literally hundreds of years for the magnetic poles to migrate from their current locations to the opposite positions north and south.
In fact, it’s believed the poles sometimes get stuck for a short period of time along the way at the equators. But when the next flip of the Earth’s magnetic field takes place – and it will happen eventually – we will have plenty of warning and can do things to protect ourselves from whatever inconveniences it causes.
While radiation levels clearly aren’t going to be high enough to cause an apocalypse for life on Earth – since it didn’t do so in previous pole flips – the situation for human beings today is a bit different. We have technology, and this makes us vulnerable in a way that ancient human beings and other animals never were.
Also, certain animals on Earth that depend on the Earth’s magnetic field to judge direction may be impacted temporarily, although they would probably quickly adjust. For instance, migratory patterns for birds might be altered if they had trouble determining which way was north. But all of these minor problems hardly mean the end of the world. And given that such changes would take generations anyway, it’s nothing we need to panic about in 2017.
[Featured Image by NASA]