One less worry: the magnetic field flipping between north and south poles is not the end of the world

Preface.  The geomagnetic field reversal of polarity has occurred thousands of times in the geological past. We are overdue for another. Indeed, Earth’s dipole has decreased in strength by nearly 10% since it was first measured in 1840. It could happen within the next 2,000 years.

If the magnetic poles flip, it is likely solar radiation storms will crash power grids, satellites, and electronic communications for 10,000 years based on what we know of past reversals.

But not to worry, by 2100 there won’t be an electric grid, satellites, and electronic communications because there won’t be enough oil, coal, and natural gas left to run them.  Or wind and solar power, which also depend on fossils every single step of their life cycle.

By the time the poles flip, we’ll be back to horse drawn carriages, so not having GPS won’t be a big deal.   In a world that’s gone back to wood as the main energy and infrastructure resource, as in all past civilizations before fossils, no one is likely to even even notice the magnetic field is weak. Though we should feel sorry for migrating birds, it might throw them for a loop.

Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once tried to describe what a magnetic field looked like: “Is it any different from trying to imagine a room full of invisible angels? No, it’s not like imagining invisible angels. It requires a much higher degree of imagination to understand the electromagnetic field than to understand invisible angels.”

Perhaps Feynman would have a better idea of what a magnetic field looks like if he’d gone to the arctic circle in the winter — auroras are electromagnetic fields shimmering and dancing across the night sky.

Though Feynman’s superstitious image is apt because the study of magnetism used to be part of religion, magic and natural philosophy. If the author had written this book a few hundred years ago, she might have been burned at the stake for her heresy.

Sure, if the poles flipped within the next 50 years, it would be a real disaster, just see my posts on an electromagnetic pulse here for details.  But the odds are good your great grandchild won’t even know it’s happened.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Buffett, B. 2018. A candid portrait of the scientists studying Earth’s declining magnetism warns of potential peril if the poles swap places. Science.

A book review of Alanna Mitchel, 2018, “The Spinning Magnet: The Electromagnetic Force That Created the Modern World–and Could Destroy It”, Dutton.

Earth’s magnetic field protects the environment from the harsh conditions of space and its strength has been declining since Carl Friedrich Gauss measured this in the 1830s. The decline suggests that the magnetic field may flip in less than 2,000 years.  The last time this happened was 780,000 years ago.

The outcome would be a substantial lowering of our protective shield.Should that happen again, the weak magnetic field would wreak havoc on our power grids and other infrastructure.

Recent examples of failures in this protective barrier (Kappenman 1997) serve to highlight the problem. A large solar storm in March 1989 sent high levels of charged particles streaming toward Earth. These particles impinged on the magnetic field and induced electric currents through power grids in Quebec, Canada. The ensuing blackout affected 6 million customers. A reduction in the field strength would allow charged particles to penetrate deeper into the Earth system, causing greater damage with even modest solar storms. A substantial and sustained collapse of the magnetic field during a reversal would likely end our present system of power distribution.

Throughout the book, there is a clear and effective attempt to cast a spotlight on the individuals who have contributed to our understanding of Earth’s magnetic field. Mitchell has a sharp eye for mannerisms and a vivid way of bringing personalities to the page. Her explanations are aimed at a nontechnical audience, and the analogies she uses to describe complex scientific ideas are always entertaining. For example, a crowded washroom at a “beer-soaked” sporting event serves as the starting point for an illustration of Pauli’s exclusion principle. Her enthusiasm for the book’s subject matter shines throughout.

There is little doubt that the magnetic field will reverse again. In the meantime, The Spinning Magnet gives readers a nontechnical description of electromagnetism and a measured assessment of the possible consequences for our modern world if it does so in the near future.

Reference

Kappenman, J. G., et al. 1997. Space weather from a user’s perspective: Geomagnetic storm forecasts and the power industry. American Geophysics Union 78: 37-45

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