Last week, numerous reports suggested that Earth may be about to go through a long, thousand-year process, one where our planet’s magnetic poles will be reversed. This is a phenomenon that is believed to have happened hundreds of times in the billions of years since Earth was formed. With scientists believing that another magnetic field reversal could be due at some point in the future, reports have also suggested that this could lead to an apocalyptic scenario that could threaten every form of life on Earth. However, there are some who believe that these reports of potentially cataclysmic changes are exaggerated and sensationalized.
As previously explained in a report from Undark, the North Pole and South Pole were located on opposite sides of the global map about 780,000 years ago. This was the last time a magnetic field reversal was believed to have taken place, though as further noted, both poles had come close to flipping about 40,000 years ago, only to return to their original positions. The publication also cited scientists who fear that the event would render certain parts of Earth uninhabitable and greatly increase the amount of radiation that seeps through the ozone layer.
While most reports since then had focused on the potentially dire ramifications of a magnetic field reversal, with the Daily Mail specifically stating that the process could take up to 1,000 years to complete, a few others countered those stories by stressing that humanity doesn’t really have much to worry about in the grander scheme of things.
According to the Evening Standard, multiple experts have gone on record to say that a magnetic field flip won’t pose much danger to humanity. These people include University College London space and climate physics lecturer Robert Wicks, who said that the event could primarily affect satellite and GPS systems, and would likely take so long to play out that people will be able to adapt to the changes over multiple generations.
“It has been 780,000 years since the last complete reversal of the poles, and it may not happen again for thousands of years. We may not see any change in our lifetime,” said Wicks.
“The idea that doomsday is coming is simply not true, and [the magnetic field reversal] will not pose a threat to human life. It is a gradual process that I’m sure we can handle.”
In an op-ed published Wednesday on National Geographic, science journalist Nadia Drake similarly stressed that the doom-and-gloom scenarios hinted at in the Undark report and others may have been blown out of proportion. While Drake acknowledged that Earth is a “bit overdue” for a magnetic field reversal, she added that it is not to be interpreted as a sign that the process will begin in the near future, and that nobody knows for sure when the next such event will be taking place. Previous research suggests that Earth’s poles usually flip every 200,000 to 300,000 years, though this rate has tended to fluctuate from time to time.
Regarding the predictions of mass extinctions and other “dramatic” events, Drake wrote that there isn’t enough data to support the belief that several species could ultimately be wiped out by a magnetic field reversal. She also noted that the slow process of any potential polar flip will give people enough advance notice to prepare and “ameliorate any unpleasant effects before they get really unpleasant.”