If you’re scratching for the next dystopian plot twist to humanity’s fate, look no further than the Earth’s magnetic north pole shifting at unprecedented speeds.
Experts are unsure why this is occurring, but some have hypothesized that the shift is part of an overdue fluctuation where the magnetic poles can flip. This event occurs every 200,000 to 300,000 years, with the last full swap occurring around 780,000 years ago. An unsuccessful polarity flip occurred around 40,000 years ago.
But what makes this particular event interesting is the speed at which magnetic north is roaming towards Siberia. Scientists are baffled at the remarkable pace, and though magnetic north is never truly stationary, travelling 1,400 miles since 1831, it has now accelerated to 34 miles per year.
In 2000, the magnetic North Pole was moving at a speed of 6.2 miles toward Northern Russia. From then until current times, the rate increased to 34 miles per year in the same direction. In 2019, the shift decreased to 31 miles with an expected drop of 25 miles from 2020 to 2025 to occur.
Ciaran Beggan from the British Geological Survey (BGS) told the Financial Times:
“The movement since the 1990s is much faster than at any time for at least four centuries. We really don’t know much about the changes in the core that’s driving it.”
However, the scientific community has been on alert since January 2019:
“The drift is the result of processes deep in the center of the planet, where the liquid outer core comprised of iron and nickel spins and flows like water, serving as a conductor for Earth’s magnetic field.
The recent change in the flow of the fluid is believed to be similar to the formation of a jet stream in the atmosphere, leading to changes in the planet’s magnetic field.
… these changes are all part and parcel of the natural behavior of the Earth and have not been caused by human activity. Rock samples reveal that the Earth’s magnetic field has been in perpetual motion for millions of years.”
NGA in partnership with @NOAA and the @BritGeoSurvey, has released the World Magnetic Model 2020 update, providing more precise navigational data for all military and civilian planes, ships, submarines and GPS units. pic.twitter.com/VGyfui42MB
— NGA (@NGA_GEOINT) December 17, 2019
The shift in magnetic north is calculated to produce the World Magnetic Model (WMM). This representation provides us with the mapping abilities for compasses, apps, NASA, FAA, and military navigation systems, among many other uses. Every five years, the WMM is updated to adjust for the shift, however, this method has come a year ahead of schedule because of the unprecedented speeds.
“Provided that suitable satellite magnetic observations are available, the prediction of the WMM is highly accurate on its release date and then subsequently deteriorates towards the end of the five-year epoch, when it has to be updated with revised values of the model coefficients,” the NCEI explains.
Serious Implications for Humanity
When the poles switch, scientists believe the Earth’s protective shield that minimizes solar and cosmic rays will weaken to as little as one-tenth of its ability. The recovery time for such an event is typically centuries.
What this means for us is a likely world-wide blackout. A weakened magnetic field means it will impact orbiting satellites from radiation. The timing systems inbuilt into the satellites that control electric grids could suffer damage, and if damaged, experts believe the worldwide blackouts could last for decades.
The rapid movement of magnetic north will also compromise the ‘smart’ technologies that are fast becoming a way of life. GPS technology, AI, autonomous vehicles and household appliances are all at risk. Any industries that rely on navigation systems will suffer or fail.
Migratory animals will also feel the effects. These include whales, butterflies, and birds, to name a few.
Despite the widespread panic a global blackout would induce, governments and researchers can prepare with action plans. It is critical to prepare and design technologies to withstand such events and to prepare communities to survive what is an inevitable event. Whether the poles flip tomorrow or thousands of years from now, they must design infrastructure with this in mind.
The Earth’s poles have been flipping for millions of years and will continue to do so into the future. All we can do is educate ourselves and prepare.
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