Earth's magnetic poles can flip faster than first thought
Earth's magnetic poles can flip sooner and faster than first thought. This could have a major bearing on satellites orbiting the Earth.
We might think that a compass will always point north, but what if the earth's magnetic poles actually flipped around? Such a bizarre jump has happened in the past and, according to geophysicists, could happen again sooner and faster than first thought.
Liquid metal churning out of the Earth's core gives the planet its magnetic field. But when this liquid flows in a different direction, it can have a major bearing on our magnetic field.
On Tuesday, researchers from China published a study finding that this reverse in the planet's magnetic poles can also occur much faster than initially thought. While geophysicists previously believed that such a phenomenon could only occur over several hundred years, new evidence suggests that the last geomagnetic switch, back at the beginning of the last ice age, took just 144 years — around 30 times faster than previously thought possible.
Researchers were able to able deduce these faster fluctuations in the Earth's poles by analyzing stalagmites in limestone caves, several of which were still magnetized and whose age could easily be determined.
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Why a geomagnetic shift may be imminent
The researchers said they had several reasons to believe that another polar flip could happen soon.
First, the Earth's magnetic field is roughly 10 percent weaker compared to when records first began 175 years ago, meaning the poles are more prone to shift.
Further, the magnetic poles are moving increasingly quickly. The northern pole currently sits under the arctic ice to the north of Canada. However, every year it moves some 50 kilometers (31 miles) towards Siberia.
Their final argument: A reversal in the Earth's magnetic field is long overdue. On average it occurs every 200,000 to 300,000 years, and the last such incident was around 780,000 years ago.
However, since then the planet has seen several so-called geomagnetic "excursions," which don't permanently switch the Earth's magnetic poles, but cause them to temporarily drift, sometimes to a complete, though short-lived, reversal.
Jürgen Matzka from the Institute of Earth and Environmental Science in Potsdam told German media that "such excursions are ten times more frequent" and are initially "indistinguishable from real pole jumps."
While such a polar shift doesn't pose any immediate threat to humanity, experts do warn that it cause satellites to fail. However, this isn't a new risk; as the Earth's magnetic field gets weaker, it fails to protect these satellites from dangerous radiation and particles emitted by the sun.
The Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite in 1957, beating US to the punch and prompting fears of Soviet dominance in space. In January of the next year, the US army responded by sending up the Explorer 1 satellite (pictured above). And on July 29, 1958, the US Congress approved the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, or NASA. The agency opened its doors on October 1.
NASA managed to land humans on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, just 11 years after the association's foundation. The feat was accomplished using less computing power than that possessed by the modern-day smartphone. The photo shows Neil Armstrong and Erwin Aldrin planting the US flag on the lunar surface.
On April 14, 1970, an oxygen tank on the Apollo 13 spacecraft exploded, prompting astronaut James Lovell (center) to report back to NASA base in Texas: "Houston, we've had a problem." The crew made it back to Earth after a risky repair operation. Lovell's phrase, slightly misquoted, was made famous by a 1995 movie, Apollo 13.
The Challenger Space Shuttle was not as fortunate as Apollo 13. It exploded, killing all seven people on board, just minutes after takeoff on January 28, 1986. Famed physicist Richard Feynman eventually determined that the crash was caused by a rubber seal ring that failed in unusually cold temperatures.
The Cold War rivalries between Russian and American scientists were finally buried on December 14, 1998, when the US-built Unity module and the Russian-made Zarya module docked in space. The two modules form the basis of what we now know as the International Space Station (ISS).
On August 6, 2012, NASA landed the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. The mobile laboratory is still sending scientific findings, selfies and even tweets from Mars, albeit with a little help from its Earth-based handlers. Curiosity's data is crucial for NASA's next mission: landing humans on Mars some time in the 2030s.
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