There are a lot of theories on how the world will end. From really far fetched ideas like the 2012 Maya Calendar predictions or the coming of the Antichrist, to some more scientific facts like, a meteorite strike or runaway climate change. One other possibility that many people also bring up to the table when it comes to the end of life as we know it, is a flip of the planet’s electromagnetic poles. In other words, the magnetic pole North becomes South and vice-versa.
Many say that an event like this would bring with it sudden shifts and movements in the tectonic plates, massive earthquakes, rapid climate-change and mass animal extinctions. Moreover, people believe that this process of pole shifting is already on its way.
So, the question is, how accurate are these predictions in the event that North becomes South and vice-versa? Well, for starters, geological evidence clearly show that this process of pole shifting has taken place on Earth for hundreds of times in the past. They are a result of patches of iron atoms in Earth’s liquid outer core become reverse-aligned, like tiny magnets oriented in the opposite direction from those around them. When the reversed patches grow to the point that they dominate the rest of the core, Earth’s overall magnetic field flips.
The last time this happened was roughly some 780.000 years ago during the Stone Age and it coincides with the demise of the Neanderthal (our evolutionary cousins). This doesn’t necessarily mean that a pole reversal was the main cause for their extinction, but it may had something to do with it. And indeed there is evidence that seems to suggest that we’re currently in the early stages of such a flip.
A process like this won’t happen over night though, it is estimated that it will take between 1000 to 10,000 years to complete or maybe a bit faster. Nevertheless, scientists have noticed that the magnetic field that is protecting our planet from the deadly solar radiation is becoming weaker and weaker for the past 150 years or so. Ever since we started studding it.
Now, if this event is to occur, we shouldn’t worry too much since it will be a gradual process. However it won’t pass completely unnoticed. “It’s not a sudden flip, but a slow process, during which the field strength becomes weak, very probably the field becomes more complex and might show more than two poles for a while, and then builds up in strength and [aligns] in the opposite direction,” said Monika Korte, the scientific director of the Niemegk Geomagnetic Observatory at GFZ Potsdam in Germany.
During this time, our planet will be much more vulnerable to solar flares and could disrupt electronic equipment down on the surface, leading to blackouts. It could also punch holes into the Ozone layer. “Ozone holes, like that over Antarctica (which today are due to an entirely different cause related to man) could form as solar particles interact with the atmosphere in a cascade of chemical reactions. These ‘holes’ would not be permanent, but might be present on one- to 10-year timescales — arguably important enough to be a concern in terms of skin cancer rates,” John Tarduno said, professor of geophysics at the University of Rochester.
One other big concern will be to migratory animals which base their orientation on the magnetic field. If it goes haywire, we don’t know how the birds, whales, fish, bees, turtles and many others, will cope.
There is a portion of the planet which is currently experiencing a significant drop in the magnetic field’s intensity and it has been dropping significantly for the past century. This place is known as the South Atlantic Anomaly. Now, whether it will happen in the near future or not, scientists aren’t sure. The only thing that they’re sure about is that it won’t be as bad as the popular imagination suggests and it will take thousands of years to complete, giving us time to adjust to the changes accordingly.