Earth's magnetic poles could be about to flip, causing mass blackouts and solar storms

The Earth's weakening magnetic field could be a sign that the planet's north and south poles are about to flip, which could potentially damage power grids, disrupt weather and increase cancer rates.

                            Earth's magnetic poles could be about to flip, causing mass blackouts and solar storms
The Earth's magnetic field has weakened by around 15 per cent over the last 200 years. (Getty Images)

In the center of the Earth, deep below the surface lies its fierce molten core. The core generates a giant magnetic field that blankets the planet, which, among other things, plays an important role in defending our planet against devastating solar winds and harmful radiation. The protective field extends thousands of miles into space and its magnetism affects everything from the auroras to power grids to cellphone networks. But this magnetic field, so important to life on Earth, has weakened by around 15 per cent over the last 200 years. This weakening, scientists claim, could be a sign that the Earth’s poles are about to flip.

The movement of the Earth's magnetic poles are shown in this animation at 10-year intervals from 1970 to 2020. The red and blue lines sjpw the difference between magnetic north and true north depending on where you are standing. On the green line, a compass would point to true north. (Image Credit: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information)

In an in-depth report by Undark Magazaine, Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, claims that if this reversal happens, it could effectively render some areas of the planet 'uninhabitable' by knocking out power grids.

This animation shows how the magnetic field is weakening over South America, and the red area over North America is losing strength. The blue lines here indicate a weaker magnetic field, while the red lines show a stronger one, and the green line indicated the boundary between them, at 10-year intervals from 1910 to 2020. Image Credit: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.

"The dangers: devastating streams of particles from the sun, galactic cosmic rays, and enhanced ultraviolet B rays from a radiation-damaged ozone layer, to name just a few of the invisible forces that could harm or kill living creatures," writes Alanna Mitchell in the Undark piece. "No lights. No computers. No cellphones. Even flushing a toilet or filling a car’s gas tank would be impossible. And that’s just for starters."

Historically, the reversal of Earth’s magnetic North and South pole (an event that is called Geomagnetic Reversal) occur at an average regularity every 450,000 years or so. However, the last Geomagnetic Reversal, dubbed the Brunhes–Matuyama reversal, occurred about 780,000 years ago, which makes the next flip long overdue. The latest satellite data, from the European Space Agency’s Swarm trio which monitors the Earth's magnetic field, suggests a flip may be imminent.

The satellites allow researchers to study changes building at the Earth’s core. Their studies suggest molten iron and nickel are draining energy out of the core near where the magnetic field is generated. While scientists aren't sure exactly why this happens, they say that this 'restless activity' could suggest the magnetic field is preparing to flip soon.

What would actually happen if the magnetic poles flipped?

Mass extinctions

Shortly after the first geomagnetic polarity time scales were produced, scientists began exploring the possibility that reversals could be linked to mass extinctions. One theory propounds that during the reversal, the magnetic field would almost completely disappear, exposing life on Earth to strong radiation from space. But this theory has proven highly controversial and scientists concluded that it was highly unlikely that such mass extinctions could be caused directly by such solar storms. However, studies have suggested that the geomagnetic reversals have caused vigorous convection leading to widespread volcanic activity, and that the subsequent airborne ash caused extinctions.

The atmosphere could disappear

It is believed that Mars' atmosphere was stripped by solar winds because is does not have a strong magnetic field. (Image Source: Nasa)

There was speculation in the scientific community that a thinned magnetic field could strip the planet’s atmosphere completely, exposing it completely. But historical evidence suggests the scenario is highly unlikely. However, it is believed that Mars' atmosphere was stripped by solar winds because is does not have a strong magnetic field.

The economy could collapse

As stated in the Undark article, the most prevalent fear among many is that the electrical storms that would batter the planet would leave electrical systems useless. Satelites may lose connectivity to Earth, cell phones, lights and electrical grids could go bust, leaving us in darkness.

This could potentially crash stock markets and stop economies from working properly. It could also mean complete radio silence, with no TV, radio or internet.

According to a report by the Daily Mail, the impact could be devastating for mankind, knocking out power grids, radically changing Earth’s climate and driving up rates of cancer. "This is serious business," Richard Holme, Professor of Earth, Ocean and Ecological Sciences at Liverpool University, told Mail Online in an interview. "Imagine for a moment your electrical power supply was knocked out for a few months — very little works without electricity these days."

Dr Colin Forsyth from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at UCL suggests that radiation could be 3-5 times greater than that from the manmade ozone holes, and that the holes would be larger and longer-lived. Radiation at ground level would also increase and the overall exposure to cosmic radiation would increase the risks of widespread cancer.

But a global apocalypse is not guaranteed, as Nasa explains: "Many doomsday theorists have tried to take this natural geological occurrence and suggest it could lead to Earth's destruction. But would there be any dramatic effects? The answer, from the geologic and fossil records we have from hundreds of past magnetic polarity reversals, seems to be 'no’."

The effects of such reversals don’t occur instantly, as if in a post-apocalyptic film. The reality is that the reversal could span out across thousands of years, and the noticeable effects will be few and far in between.

"The sluggish polar meander is good, because it means we have time to prepare and can do our best to ameliorate any unpleasant effects before they get really unpleasant. But it’s bad, because our planet’s magnetic field helps shield us from damaging solar and cosmic radiation, and a protracted flip means Earth might be slightly less protected from harmful space rays for longer than we would like," writes science journalist Nadia Drake in National Geographic.

"It’s also not very dramatic, because it means you won’t suddenly wake up and find out that your smartphone thinks Santa’s workshop is in the Southern Hemisphere,’ she adds with a nice touch.

According to the Nat Geo report, an interesting phenomenon will occur with animals and birds that are migratory in nature. Many creatures use the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation—including birds, salmon, and sea turtles—could get lost during their routine journeys. But they will soon figure it out, and assuming that everything else remains equal, life will go on.

So considering all the facts and the theories - some probable, many wild - one positive thing will come out of the whole affair for sure. A weaker magnetic field means that the auroras - The Northern and Southern Lights - would be visible at much lower altitudes and that would mean that the night times skies would be an absolute delight. So you might not have to go to Norway to see the great gig in the sky after all!