image from space of earth's north pole
Sean Cate
Sean Cate
January 7, 2024 ·  6 min read

What Might Happen If The Earth’s Magnetic Poles Flip

Back in those days during basic practical physics, we established that magnetism is NOT a static force. IF you were never bothered by the inconsistencies in your readings in the physics laboratory, our planet has a whole new package of concerns for you to think about.

Geomagnetic jerks are sudden and rapid time-derived changes in the angular positioning of the earth’s magnetic fields, usually resulting in errors and inaccuracies in ground navigation, readings, recordings and observation [1]

The earth has two north poles: the geographic North Pole and the magnetic north pole. The magnetic pole was first discovered in 1831 by James Clark Ross in the Islands of Canada’s Nunavut territory [2]. The latter has been observed over the last century to be highly unstable, shifting massively every year and causing inaccuracies in navigation equipment readings, military reconnaissance activities, and global positioning systems. Although GPS is reliable, it can sometimes render inaccurate results in the more polar regions. The North Pole moves an average of 50km every year (31.1 miles), and it came to rest in Canada in the year 1900. In the early 2000s, it moved slightly east of Canada to come to rest in Greenland, and presently, it’s still moving further east and would come to rest in Siberia in a few years. 

What causes geomagnetic jerking?

A new study published in Nature Geoscience attributes geomagnetic jerking to the liquid metallic core waving underneath the earth’s surface in its outermost core [3]. The earth’s magnetic field is provided by the churning liquid nickel and iron ore located about 1,800 below the surface. The study suggests that turbulence and the persistent movement of the fluid cause these jerks in the earth’s magnetic field. Basically, when the magnetic fluid below the earth jerks, the poles move in return. Think of a tiny little unmanned boat floating around in an open ocean. Little waves will cause little jerks to the boat. Massive waves would move it farther into the ocean. 

However, these under-earth fluid movements happen at a rate of 6 miles per year. The scientists discovered that large bubbles of metal ore may have the tendency to be hotter than the entire surrounding ore. These bubbles may rise to the surface in rapid movements, sending magnetic waves up to the surface that results in these geomagnetic jerks happening year-round. 

Problems resulting from the movement of the magnetic north pole

The geomagnetic jerks may result in a weakened magnetic field, which is a total bad omen for the earth. The earth’s magnetic field stretches into interplanetary space, forming a protective magnetic bubble called the magnetosphere. This is a layer that deflects solar winds, radiation and cosmic rays from outer space, preventing the destruction of our atmosphere and extinction of human life. A lot like the ozone layer, the magnetosphere is not 100 percent efficient, which is why harmful radiation from the sun still finds its way into the immediate atmosphere. However, without it, the earth would most probably not be habitable.

Also, these jerks cause inaccuracies to observations made using the World Magnetic Model. The WMM is a large spatial-scale representation of the earth’s magnetic field, a joint product of the United States’ National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the United Kingdom’s Defence Geographic Centre (DGC). It is a standard used by the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.K. Ministry of Defense, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), for military, navigation, global positioning and reconnaissance purposes. It’s also used by tech giants such as Google and Apple for modern mapping systems.

Updates to the WMM are made by the British Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) every five years. The next update was supposed to be due in 2020, but the U.S Department of Defense requested an emergency update due to the acceleration in the magnetic pole movement, completed on February 4 this year [4]. Usually moving at 31 miles per year, the past 18 years has seen the movement of the magnetic north pole rise periodically to 40 miles per year, resulting in unpredicted changes to the Magnetic Model that would affect a lot more than just compass readings if left unchecked [5].

The Siberian patch looks like it’s winning the battle,” says Phil Livermore, a geophysicist at the University of Leeds. “It’s sort of pulling the magnetic field all the way across to its side of the geographic pole.

All-out magnetic polar reversal? What happens to the earth then?

Once in every 780,000 years, a polar geomagnetic flip occurs [6]. A phenomenon whereby the north pole becomes the south pole and vice versa. This could also result in the occurrence of multiple magnetic fields, a situation that would lead to more problems than merely reading inaccuracies. In previous earth history, polar flips have been recorded to happen a few times, and it may be gearing up to happen again in the near future, although no one is really certain if there’s any cause for immediate panic.

One of the problems that could occur from the dreaded total flip is an estimated 30% drop in the magnetic field strength of the earth which would result in the reduction of its overall protective capabilities. As a result of the previous polar flips that have occurred in the earth’s history, the earth at certain times may have more than just two poles [7]. There have been records of four, six, and sometimes eight poles co-existing together, each one attempting to cancel out the other. This discordance results in a weakening of the magnetic fields, sometimes exceeding 30%.

A multi-polar magnetic field would make the earth a pretty dangerous place to live within the period of reversal. Radiation levels would be uncontrollably high, leading to bio-cell destruction, higher rates of cancer, gene mutation, and severe skin damage. 

Extreme disruption of navigational equipment, global positioning systems, and satellite frequencies could also be possible occurrences. Animals that use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate their way around, such as the homing pigeon and fruit fly may be displaced permanently from their natural habitats (magnetoreception). 

However, scientists are not fully certain of when this reversal would happen again. 780,000 years ago was way before “the world was”. Researchers around the world are working hard to figure this phenomenon out, but for now, let’s not worry about getting lost while using a compass to navigate our way on a camping trip anytime soon. 

  1. CNRS. Geomagnetic jerks finally reproduced and explained. Phys. Retrieved 15-07-19
  2. Wei-Haas. Maya. Magnetic north just changed. Here’s what that means. National Geographic. Retrieved 15-07-19
  3. Aubert & Finlay. Geomagnetic jerks and rapid hydromagnetic waves focusing at Earth’s core surface. Nature Geoscience. Retrieved 15-07-19
  4. Alister, Doyle. Shifting north magnetic pole forces unprecedented navigation fix. Business Insider.
  5. Brooks, Michael. The north pole is moving and if it flips, life on Earth is in trouble. New Scientist. Retrieved 15-07-19
  6. Contributor. Earth’s magnetic north pole is moving too fast for experts to keep up. Now scientists might know why. Business Insider. Retrieved 15-07-19
  7. Contributor. What will happen when Earth’s north and south poles flip? Business Insider. Retrieved 15-07-19
  8. Admin. Earth’s Magnetosphere. NASA Science. Retrieved 15-07-19
  9. Admin. The World Magnetic Model. NCEI. Retrieved 15-07-19
  10. Admin. Magnetoreception in animals. Physics Today. Retrieved 15-07-19