Is it true that Earth's magnetic field occasionally reverses its polarity?

Yes. We can see evidence of magnetic polarity reversals by examining the geologic record. When lavas or sediments solidify, they often preserve a signature of the ambient magnetic field at the time of deposition.

Incredible as it may seem, the magnetic field occasionally flips over! The geomagnetic poles are currently roughly coincident with the geographic poles, but occasionally the magnetic poles wander far away from the geographic poles and undergo an "excursion" from their preferred state. Earth's dynamo has no preference for a particular polarity, so, after an excursional period, the magnetic field, upon returning to its usual state of rough alignment with the Earth’s rotational axis, could just as easily have one polarity as another. 

These reversals are random with no apparent periodicity to their occurrence. They can happen as often as every 10 thousand years or so and as infrequently as every 50 million years or more. The last reversal was about 780,000 years ago.

Reversals are not instantaneous; they happen over a period of hundreds to thousands of years, though recent research indicates that at least one reversal could have taken place over a period of one year.

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Do solar flares or magnetic storms (space weather) cause earthquakes?

Solar flares and magnetic storms belong to a set of phenomena known collectively as "space weather". Technological systems and the activities of modern civilization can be affected by changing space-weather conditions. However, it has never been demonstrated that there is a causal relationship between space weather and

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Why measure the magnetic field at the Earth's surface? Wouldn't satellites be better suited for space-weather studies?

Satellites and ground-based magnetometers are important for making measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field. They are not redundant but are instead complementary.

  • Satellites provide good geographical coverage for data collection.
  • Ground-based magnetometers are much less expensive and much easier to
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What are the hazards of magnetic storms?

Our technology-based infrastructure can be adversely affected by rapid magnetic-field variations. This is especially true during “magnetic storms."

  • Because the ionosphere is heated and distorted during storms, long-range radio communication that relies on sub-ionospheric reflection can be difficult or impossible
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Does the Earth's magnetic field affect human health?

Not directly. High-altitude pilots and astronauts can experience higher levels of radiation during magnetic storms, but the hazard is due to the radiation, not the magnetic field itself. Direct effects on human health from the magnetic field at the Earth's surface are insignificant. Geomagnetism can impact the electrically-

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What is declination?

At most places on the Earth's surface, the compass doesn't point exactly toward geographic north. The deviation of the compass from true north is an angle called "declination." It is a quantity that has been a nuisance to navigators for centuries, especially since it varies with both geographic location and time. It might

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Are we about to have a magnetic reversal?

Almost certainly not.

Since the invention of the magnetometer in the 1830s, the average intensity of the magnetic field at the Earth's surface has decreased by about ten percent. We know from paleomagnetic records that the intensity of the magnetic field decreases by as much as ninety percent at the Earth's surface

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How does the Earth's core generate a magnetic field?

The Earth's outer core is in a state of turbulent convection as the result of radioactive heating and chemical differentiation. This sets up a process that is a bit like a naturally occurring electrical generator, where the convective kinetic energy is converted to electrical and magnetic energy. Basically, the motion of

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Do animals use the magnetic field for orientation?

Yes. There is evidence that some animals, like sea turtles, have the ability to sense the Earth's magnetic field (although probably not consciously) and to use this sense for navigation.

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Do any mass extinctions correlate with magnetic reversals?

No. There is no evidence of a correlation between mass extinctions and magnetic pole reversals.

Earth’s magnetic field and its atmosphere protect us from solar radiation. It’s not clear whether a weak magnetic field during a polarity transition would allow enough solar radiation to reach the Earth's surface that it

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Is the Earth a magnet?

In a sense, yes. The Earth is composed of layers having different chemical compositions and different physical properties. The crust of the Earth has some permanent magnetization, and the Earth’s core generates its own magnetic field, sustaining the main part of the field we measure at the surface. So we could say that the

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Could magnetic reversals be caused by meteorite or comet impacts?

Although extremely unlikely, it might be possible for a reversal of the Earth's magnetic field to be triggered by a meteorite or comet impact, or even for it to be caused by something more "gentle," such as the melting of the polar ice caps.

But self-contained dynamic systems like Earth’s dynamo can do this without

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Are earthquakes associated with variations in the geomagnetic field?

Electromagnetic variations have been observed after earthquakes, but despite decades of work, there is no convincing evidence of electromagnetic precursors to earthquakes. It is worth acknowledging that geophysicists would actually love to demonstrate the reality of such precursors, especially if they could be used for

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Date published: September 12, 2016

Mapping a Space-Weather Menace to Electric-Power Grids

New strides have been made toward quantifying how geomagnetic storms can interfere with the nation’s electric-power grid systems.  

Date published: December 18, 2013

A Modern Compass Improves Oil Production

By using the Earth's magnetic field, combined with new innovative technology, oil and gas drilling companies are increasing oilfield productivity while reducing development costs and environmental impacts.

Date published: May 23, 2006

USGS, NOAA Mark 50 Years of Geomagnetic Research at Corbin, Va.

 

On May 23, 1956, a research center and observatory opened at Corbin, Va. to continuously monitor the Earth's magnetic field. It was charged by Congress "to enhance geomagnetic field studies and monitoring programs in support of scientific, general public, basic and national security needs of the United States."

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USGS
October 16, 2007

USGS scientist Duane Champion explains the Earth's geomagnetic qualities and the potential for and possible consequences of a geomagnetic shift.

The geomagnetic polarity timescale.

The geomagnetic polarity timescale.

Chart showing the Earth’s magnetic feild

This is one of five world charts showing the declination, inclination, horizontal intensity, vertical component, and total intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field at mean sea level at the beginning of 2005. The charts are based on the International Geomagnetic Reference Field (IGRF) main model for 2005 and secular change model for 2005-2010. The IGRF is referenced to the World Geodetic System 1984 ellipsoid.