It’s a moment which doomsday fans are obsessed with – when Earth’s magnetic poles flips from north to south, bringing chaos to our wired world.
Compasses would point north, instead of south, due to changes in the magnetic field inside our planet – and it could affect the power grid, too, experts have warned.
Now clay remnants burnt by Iron Age people in Africa could offer a clue about whether it’s about to happen.
University of Rochester researcher Vincent Hare says that the remnants could offer a hint whether the changes in Earth’s magnetic field over recent decades mean a flip is imminent.
Hare says, ‘We’ve known for quite some time that the magnetic field has been changing, but we didn’t really know if this was unusual for this region on a longer timescale, or whether it was normal.
‘We’re getting stronger evidence that there’s something unusual about the core-mantle boundary under Africa that could be having an important impact on the global magnetic field.
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Nearly 800,000 years ago, the poles were switched: north pointed south and vice versa. The poles have never completely reversed since, but for the past 160 years, the strength of the magnetic field has been decreasing at an alarming rate.
The region where it is weakest, and continuing to weaken, is a large area stretching from Chile to Zimbabwe called the South Atlantic Anomaly.
If the poles flip, compasses will point south – and it could have significant effects on Earth’s power grid (although it’s not likely to happen immediately, despite doomsday-mongers’ obsession with the idea).
Hare says, ‘We now know this unusual behavior has occurred at least a couple of times before the past 160 years, and is part of a bigger long-term pattern.
‘it’s simply too early to say for certain whether this behavior will lead to a full pole reversal.’
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suggests that the ‘flip’ could allow radiation to reach Earth’s surface, and play havoc with hi-tech satellites.
But before you head for the doomsday bunkers, it’s probably not going to happen right away – with scientists predicting a ‘flip’ sometime in the next 2,000 years.
It also won’t happen immediately, instead happening over the course of several hundred years – giving us ample time to prepare.
NASA has poured cold water on the idea that magnetic field reversals could lead to an apocalypse, saying in 2012 that, ‘The science shows that magnetic pole reversal is – in terms of geologic time scales – a common occurrence that happens gradually over millennia.
‘While the conditions that cause polarity reversals are not entirely predictable – the north pole’s movement could subtly change direction, for instance – there is nothing in the millions of years of geologic record to suggest that any of the doomsday scenarios connected to a pole reversal should be taken seriously.’