Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right or below. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.
A new study of a stalagmite in China suggests that the Earth’s magnetic field can reverse polarity in as little as two centuries, not the thousands of years as previously thought.
He and his ANU colleague Dr Xiang Zhao from the Research School of Earth Sciences contributed to the study of the paleomagnetic record from 107,000 to 91,000 years ago that is based on precise magnetic analysis and radiometric dating of a stalagmite from a cave in southwestern China.
The stalagmite, which is one metre in length and eight centimetres in diameter, has a candle-like shape and ranges in colour from yellow to dark brown. “The record provides important insights into ancient magnetic field behaviour, which has turned out to vary much more rapidly than previously thought,” Professor Roberts said.
In the past century or so the Earth’s magnetic field has weakened by about 10%. Some scientists think it possible this presages a possible magnetic reversal, which is apparently overdue. However, up until now it was assumed from available data that any reversal would take thousands of years for the magnetic field to shut down and then restart with a flipped polarity. This new data says the shutdown can happen within the span of one human life.
It is unclear to me if this increases our risk or decreases it. The magnetic field acts to protect us from the solar wind and other space radiation. When it shuts down there will be consequences, many negative, that we now can’t even predict. If a reversal is beginning now but takes longer to happen we will have at least a thousand years to plan and adapt, but the period of shut down will be far longer, causing more harm. If it happens quickly we will have to scramble to adapt, but the period of harm will be very short, and thus might not have time to cause significant harm.
Either way, this result is decidedly uncertain, based on a single stalagmite. No one should take it too seriously without further confirmation from other evidence.