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Posts Tagged ‘magnetic field

“In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness”*…

There is a portion of the sky where no spacefarer wants to go. It causes Astronauts to see shooting stars in front of their eyes, sets off emergency sensors and renders satellites useless. This Bermuda Triangle of space isn’t just a cause for concern for our future of space exploration, it could be the sign of something far more deadly. This may herald an event that last happened 42,000 years ago, which wiped out our closest relative, the Neanderthals. Welcome to the terrifying world of the South Atlantic Anomaly.

In the 80s engineers noticed that most satellite errors happened over South America and the South Atlantic. These errors ranged from minor glitches, wiped data to full-blown crashed satellites. But they couldn’t quite pinpoint what was causing these troubling errors, they named this mysterious area the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA).

We didn’t understand the dangers of this region for a long time. When the Hubble Space Telescope first turned on in 1990 they found that the computers kept crashing and data was corrupted almost every time it flew over the South Atlantic. Not wanting their billion-dollar telescope to crash to Earth, the engineers had no choice but to switch it off every time it passed over this deadly patch of sky, and still do today. Not ideal, but it saves the telescope from this mysteriously dangerous part of space.

So what makes the South Atlantic Anomaly so dangerous? It turns out it is all down to the Sun and a crack in Earths armour caused some very bizarre geophysics.

So what does struggling satellites means for us here on Earth? Well, quite a lot really. It could be a sign of something much more deadly, a geomagnetic reversal.

When we picture the Earth’s magnetic field we often think of it as unchanging. It is our eternal armour from deadly solar radiation as well as the guide for our sailors. Even some birds have evolved iron-rich cells in their eyes, enabling them to ‘see’ the magnetic field and navigate the globe. But the magnetic north pole hasn’t always been in the north.

The magnetic poles have flipped repeatedly over the millennia. The field weakens, disappears and then reappears in the opposite direction. We know this because iron-rich lava aligns to the magnetic field and then sets, so we can look at ancient rocks and see what direction magnetic north was when it formed.

We don’t have a complete understanding of how the magnetic field is generated and why it flips. We know that convection currents of iron-rich mantle create the field, but the interactions between these immense systems are complex and hidden from us. What’s more, there are no patterns to the past flipping events, so it is very hard to predict when one will happen.

But, models and simulations show that when the field gets weaker at the beginning of a magnetic flip, it seems to happen in a random area and then grows from there. The poles also start to drift quite dramatically and chaotically. This is worrying because not only does the South Atlantic Anomaly look like the weakening in a simulation, it is also growing, and the North pole is drifting further each year.

… So, it seems at least plausible that the South Atlantic Anomaly is the start of the next geomagnetic flip. If so, it could have enormous consequences for us!

The last time a flip happened was 42,000 years ago, but it was only a temporary event, and the poles returned to their previous locations, this is known as the Laschamps Excursion, and it lasted for about a thousand years. That meant Earth was without its essential protective shield for an awfully long time.

Now, 42,000 years ago is a significant time. This was when Neanderthals died out. We (Homo Sapiens) also started using caves, red ochre body paint, and the global craze of cave painting started. It was also when a lot of ice-age megafauna died out. All of which has been linked to the flipping of the poles during this period. This extinction event and Sapien revolution has been called the Adams Event (after Douglas Adams and the infamous 42).  

This theory suggests that when the poles flipped, the Earth had a thousand years without its protective layer, so the planet was bombarded with radiation. This depleted ozone, increased radiation on the surface, messed with weather patterns and caused abrupt climate change.

Scientist even suggests that this is why we suddenly took to living in caves and using red ochre. We had to hide from the deadly rays of the Sun, and if we ventured out, we needed a powerful suncream, like powdered red ochre. This is why red ochre hand paintings became so widespread around this time.

But these immense changes hit one species particularly hard. Neanderthals were likely red-headed, light-skinned and mostly dwelt in steppes (grassy plains) and woodlands. They probably got sunburnt a lot. Unlike Homo Sapiens, it seems as though Neanderthals didn’t use red ochre much at all! All of this means that cancers would have been a deadly problem for them.

To make all this even worse, the radiation increased the strength of electrical storms, changed the weather patterns and screwed up many ecosystems. So the food that the Neanderthals hunted my have been driven away or gone extinct. It seems Neanderthals died out because they starved to death while being baked by the Sun. Meanwhile, we Homo Sapiens hid from the Sun, used weird sunscreen and adapted to new foods…

These flipping events take hundreds or thousands of years to pass due to the amount of heavy magma that needs to shift to cause a flip (however it is hypothesised it could take as little as a month in extreme circumstances). So we aren’t in any danger of waking up to a new direction for North. But, over the next few decades or hundreds of years, we will see the South Atlantic Anomaly grow and potentially be joined by many other areas of weak magnetism. We may even see some local flips in a few hundred years.

So, it seems at least plausible that the South Atlantic Anomaly is the start of the next geomagnetic flip. If so, it could have enormous consequences for us!

The South Atlantic Anomaly: Earth’s deadly weakness: “Do Failing Satellites Foretell An Imminent Extinction?” From Will Lockett (@welockett).

* Samuel Beckett


As we search for true north, we might send charged birthday greetings to a man whose life work could be at risk if there’s a flip (or an intense solar storm), Elihu Thomson; he was born on this date in 1853. An engineer and inventor, he was instrumental in developing the practical applications of electricity, especially alternating current. He invented electric welding and other important advances in electric lighting and power (among his lifetime total of about 700 patents). Thomson was also a cofounder of the General Electric Company (in 1892, in a merger of his Thomson-Houston Electric Company with the Edison Company.


“We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born”*…


This animation shows the movement of the north magnetic pole at 10-year intervals from 1970 to 2020. The red and blue lines indicate “declination,” the difference between magnetic north and true north depending on where one is standing; on the green line, a compass would point to true north. Visual by NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information

In scenario planning, one tries to identify the “driving forces”– the social, political, ecological, technical, and economic dynamics afoot– in the environment that are both likely to impact our future materially and outside our control; one then to knits the possible outcomes of those forces into alternative futures, plausible sketches of the opportunities and challenges that one might face.

There is a special class of driving force, what scenario planners call a wild card: a possibility that has relative low probability in the (usually 10 year) time horizon, but that, should it occur, would have massive consequence.  Wild cards are often things like major earthquakes or geo-political conflicts… or environmental catastrophes.  While one plans for the implications of the scenarios and their defining driving forces, one plans against wild cards; one creates action plans for the scenarios, contingency plans for the wild cards.

As climate change is slowly but surely converting yesterday’s wildcards (sustained droughts, regular, catastrophic wildfires and storms, etc.) into “regular” driving forces, it is perhaps prudent to look at some of the wildest cards that remain…

One day in 1905, the French geophysicist Bernard Brunhes brought back to his lab some rocks he’d unearthed from a freshly cut road near the village of Pont Farin. When he analyzed their magnetic properties, he was astonished at what they showed: Millions of years ago, the Earth’s magnetic poles had been on the opposite sides of the planet. North was south and south was north. The discovery spoke of planetary anarchy. Scientists had no way to explain it.

Today, we know that the poles have changed places hundreds of times, most recently 780,000 years ago. (Sometimes, the poles try to reverse positions but then snap back into place, in what is called an excursion. The last time was about 40,000 years ago.) We also know that when they flip next time, the consequences for the electrical and electronic infrastructure that runs modern civilization will be dire. The question is when that will happen…

The shield that protects the Earth from solar radiation is under attack from within. We can’t prevent it, but we ought to prepare. Learn more at “The Magnetic Field Is Shifting. The Poles May Flip. This Could Get Bad.”

* Albert Einstein


As we ponder powerlessness, we might recall that it was on this date in 1697 that Isaac Newton received a copy of Johann Bernoulli’s long-standing mathematical challenge, the brachistochrone problem: “To determine the curved line joining two given points, situated at different distances from the horizontal and not in the same vertical line, along which the mobile body, running down by its own weight and starting to move from the upper point, will descend most quickly to the lower point.” (Bernoulli coined the name from Gr. brachistos, shortest; and chronos, time.)

Newton solved it the same day, and forwarded his solution to the Royal Society—anonymously.  When Bernoulli read the solution, he shrewdly guessed it was Newton’s work.  By legend, he said, “I recognize the lion by his paw.”

Bernoulli and Newton



Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 29, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Magnetism, you recall from physics class, is a powerful force that causes certain items to be attracted to refrigerators”*…


Concentric incision on a jar handle from Ramat Rahel, in modern-day Israel

Of all the environmental amenities that this hospitable planet provides, the magnetic field is perhaps the strangest and least appreciated. It has existed for more than three and a half billion years but fluctuates daily. It emanates from Earth’s deep interior but extends far out into space. It is intangible and mostly invisible—except when it lights up in ostentatious greens and reds during the auroras—but essential to life. The magnetic field is our protective bubble; it deflects not only the rapacious solar wind, which could otherwise strip away Earth’s atmosphere over time, but also cosmic rays, which dart in from deep space with enough energy to damage living cells. Although sailors have navigated by the magnetic field for a millennium and scientists have monitored it since the eighteen-thirties, it remains a mysterious beast. Albert Einstein himself said that understanding its origin and persistence was one of the great unsolved problems in physics…

Direct measurements of the magnetic field now span almost two hundred years, and iron-rich volcanic rocks on the ocean floor provide a lower-fidelity chronicle of its erratic behavior—including wholesale reversals in polarity—back about a hundred and fifty million years. But reconstructing the field’s behavior between these two extremes has been difficult. The trick is to find an iron-bearing object that locked in a record of the magnetic field at a well-constrained time in the past, in the way that wine of a given vintage preserves an indirect record of that year’s weather conditions…

Last Monday, in a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of Israeli and American archeologists and geophysicists reports the most detailed reconstruction yet of the magnetic field in pre-instrumental times, using a set of ceramic jars from Iron Age Judea…

In the geophysical community, the tales told by the Judean jars may cause unrest. Both the height and the sharpness of the spike they recount push up against the limits of what some geophysicists think Earth’s outer core is capable of doing. If the eighth-century-B.C. geomagnetic jeté is real, models for the generation of the magnetic field need significant revision. Given the importance of a stable magnetic field to our electricity-dependent, communications-obsessed culture, these questions are of more than academic interest…

More on these befuddling fields at “Earth’s mysterious magnetic field, stored in a jar.”

* Dave Barry


As we look for True North, we might send undulating birthday greetings to George Fitzgerald Smoot III; he was born on this date in 1945.  An astrophysicist and cosmologist, Smoot discovered the signature of gravitational waves– ripples in space-time were first predicted by Albert Einstein– in his study of the cosmic microwave (“background”) radiation that originated with the Big Bang.  He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006; three years later he became the second person to run the board on the quiz show Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?, and took home the $1 million grand prize.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 20, 2017 at 1:01 am

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