Earth’s Magnetic Poles Could Flip, Leading to Disastrous Consequences

By: Beth Moreton | Last updated: Jul 02, 2024

The Earth’s geophysical and magnetic poles are used for navigational purposes and to protect the Earth from harmful rays from the universe.

However, this could all soon be about to change. Scientists have said that there is a chance that the magnetic poles could flip, the results of which would be catastrophic to the Earth and life as we know it.

What Is the Magnetic Field?

The magnetic field that surrounds the Earth is also known as the magnetosphere. It helps to shield Earth from erosion caused by solar wind, particle radiation and cosmic rays.

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An image depicting solar wind. On the left is the sun, and lines come out of it to represent the wind.

Source: Image Editor/Wikimedia Commons

It can withstand this energy that could be harmful to life on Earth, which is how most life forms can stay alive, as without it, they would be dead or severely harmed.

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Magnetic Poles Are Gradually Shifting

The forces that can generate the magnetic field are constantly changing, which means it is strengthening and weakening all the time. This leads to the magnetic poles starting to shift.

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The two magnetic poles. On the left is the North Pole, and on the right is the South Pole. Both sides show how much the poles have moved in 60 years.

Source: Unknown Author/Wikimedia Commons

Around every 300,000 years, the magnetic poles will flip locations, affecting animals such as birds and fish, who rely on the magnetic poles being in a specific location to use as their compass.

Earth’s Magnetic Field Has Weakened

Over the last 200 years, the Earth’s magnetic field has weakened. As a global average, this has weakened by around 9%. This may not seem like a lot, but it could cause problems.

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A drawing of Earth with the North and South poles.

Zureks/Wikimedia Commons

Some see this as a reason for the magnetic pole flip happening at any given moment, but scientists disagree. It is also believed that the current weakening could stop at any time.

The North Pole Moves 15km per Year

Throughout history, the North Pole has moved around 15km per year. However, over the last 30 years, this has sped up to 55km per year and is heading toward Siberia.

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The North Pole. There are blocks of ice in the water.

Source: Alexander Hafemann/Unsplash

Scientists believe that this is a foreshadowing of a magnetic shift, which is reportedly long overdue. The only thing that needs to be figured out is when exactly this will happen.

What Is Causing This Movement?

A number of factors are causing this movement to occur as rapidly as it is. This is mostly due to the Earth’s liquid-iron outer core.

A drawing of inner Earth. It shows the outer and inner cores.

Andrew Z. Colvin/Wikimedia Commons

Other causes of the movement include magnetic minerals in the crust and upper mantle, as well as electric currents that are created by seawater moving through an ambient magnetic field.

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The Magnetic Poles Have Flipped 100 Times

The magnetic poles are believed to have flipped at least 100 times in the last 20 million years. However, the reversal only tends to take around 1000 years.

A drawing of the Earth with a magnetic field around it.

Source: Designism/Wikimedia Commons

When these reversals happen, they leave fossilized magnetization in rocks on Earth. These rocks can be found on the sea floor and tell scientists when these reversals occurred.

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Magnetic Poles Set to Flip in the Next 100 Years

There is a very high possibility that the magnetic poles will flip in our lifetime, as it is set to happen within the next 100 years. The field has been slowly decaying over the last 3,000 years and could be due to decay entirely very soon.

A drawing of the inside of the Earth with magnetic poles surrounding it.

Source: DMY/Wikimedia Commons

Scientists have made this prediction due to the rate at which the magnetic field has been decaying over the last 3,000 years, so they can easily predict when it is due to happen. 

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The Magnetic Field Can Undergo Excursion

Instead of the poles flipping, there is every possibility that the magnetic field will go through an excursion instead. This is a decrease in its overall strength.

The North and South poles with curved green lines coming out of them.

Mpfiz/Wikimedia Commons

When this happens, the field doesn’t reverse but regenerates itself with the same polarity. This means that the North Pole remains the North Pole, and the South Pole remains the South Pole.

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How Magnetic Flips Were Discovered

Magnetic flips were discovered when scientists measured the magnetic field on either side of the mid-Atlantic ridges, where molten rock comes out with ease.

An image of the North and South Poles coming out of the Earth. North and South have been flipped.

Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

When this molten rock solidifies, the crystals align along the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field at that time. Because of this, they can see where changes have happened, with the crystals indicating when the flips have happened.

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Worries of Extinction

Many are worried that the flipping of the magnetic poles causing Earth to become more exposed to things such as cosmic rays and particle radiation will lead to various species, including humans, becoming extinct.

A fossil of a dinosaur in a rock.

Source: Marcus Lange/Pexels

However, scientists say that people shouldn’t be worried about this as there are no direct correlations between species becoming extinct and magnetic poles flipping.

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Rumors of Doomsday Happening

The idea of the magnetic poles flipping in the near future came when an excerpt from a book detailing this event was put online. This immediately led many newspaper outlets and people on social media to start spreading rumors that doomsday was near.

A painting of buildings crumbling down and on fire, representing doomsday.

ArtTower/Pixabay

Along with doomsday reportedly being near, people were also claiming that a geomagnetic apocalypse would cause tumors to run rampant, satellites to fall from the sky, and life on Earth to no longer be as we know it. Of course, none of this is true.

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There Will Be Very Few Noticeable Differences

Even though the magnetic pole flipping is likely to happen at some point in the future, very few noticeable changes will actually happen that we know of.

The North and South poles with black lines coming out of them.

Geek3/Wikimedia Commons

The only thing that is guaranteed to happen is that all compasses will show the North in Antarctica and the South in the Arctic. This will also cause issues with animals who rely on the magnetic poles as their compass, but they will soon be able to adjust.

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The Magnetic Field During the Roman Times

Science can go as far back as Roman times (and further) to see what the magnetic field and magnetic poles were like then.

An ancient clay pot that is brown and blue on a white surface.

Carlos Felipe RamÍrez Masa/Unsplash

Studies of the magnetization of minerals in ancient clay pots have revealed that the Earth’s magnetic field was around twice as strong during Roman times as it is now.

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Magnetic Flips and Technology

Another worry is that the magnetic flip will affect technology. As a society, we have become increasingly reliant on technology, and the effects of a magnetic flip on this are worrying.

A wooden table with various pieces of tech on it, including laptops, phones and headphones.

Source: Marvin Meyer/Unsplash

There have been warnings to governments across the world that they need to come up with a plan for what to do should this magnetic flip happen, especially as it could threaten the security of a country.

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Northern Lights and Magnetic Poles

Anyone who has ever been fortunate enough to see the northern lights will be aware of how beautiful they are. These lights can also occur in the southern hemisphere, known as the southern lights.

The Northern lights above the silhouette of some trees. The lights are green and purple.

Vincent Guth/Unsplash

The northern and southern lights are linked to the magnetic poles and the magnetic field. This is because they occur near the Earth’s magnetic poles.

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The South Atlantic Ocean Is an Anomaly

The South Atlantic Ocean is an anomaly, as it is the one area of the Earth that has the weakest part of the magnetic field and is where strange things tend to happen.

The Southern Hemisphere with the South Atlantic Ocean.

Source: CIA/Wikimedia Commons

Scientists have noticed that as satellites pass over the area, this causes instruments to malfunction, power boards to reset and detectors to cause glitches in astronomical data.

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The South Atlantic Anomaly Could Disappear

Many scientists believe that this anomaly is likely to disappear at some point in the future. Current predictions are that it will happen within the next 300 years.

The South Atlantic Ocean.

Source: @Tooth_Chipper/X

These estimates can be made due to the repeating patterns of these changes throughout history. However, due to advancements made on Earth at that time, such as issues with climate change, these predictions may not be entirely accurate.

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The Sun’s Magnetic Poles Frequently Flip

Different from the Earth’s magnetic poles, the sun’s magnetic poles are also in a period of flipping. These flips are more frequent and happen roughly every 11 years. The last flip happened in 2013, and the next is set to happen in 2024.

The sun's magnetic poles. The sun is in the center of the image. The blue lines are the magnetic field lines and the red lines are the solar wind flow. The dotted yellow lines are the neutral current sheet. All of the lines are going in and out of the sun.

MagentaGreen/Wikimedia Commons

The flipping of the sun’s magnetic poles occurs for similar reasons to the flipping of the Earth’s magnetic poles. The fields weaken, go to zero, and return with opposite polarity.

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What Happens When the Sun’s Magnetic Poles Flip?

When the sun’s magnetic poles flip, several things will occur. These include more intense solar storms, which can disrupt satellites, communication, and GPS in space and disable parts of the electrical grid.

The sun rising from behind the silhouette of some trees and clouds.

Timon Studler/Unsplash

During the geomagnetic storm in the summer of 1859, the northern lights were able to occur at below 50 degrees latitude, whereas they typically only occur at 60 and 75 degrees latitude.

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The Magnetic Field Doesn’t Contribute to Climate Change

Some discussions have involved people who claim that variations in the Earth’s magnetic field contribute to global warming and climate change.

A dry desert with a tree with no leaves and clouds in a grey sky.

Pixabay/Pexels

However, these claims have turned out to be false. People might be making these claims, but science has said that they are false.

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Magnetic Poles Won’t Flip for Thousands of Years

Experts have predicted that despite previous predictions of the magnetic poles flipping at any time now, it might not actually happen in any of our lifetimes.

A drawing of Earth is in the center of the image and black curved lines are coming out of it and going back into it. These lines are numbered.

Drdan14/Wikimedia Commons

The poles have now been predicted to flip in around a thousand years. However, as the previous predictions have clearly been wrong, and the last flip happened over 700,000 years ago despite the average time between flips being 300,000 years, there is no knowing when the next flip will happen.

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Strong Geomagnetic Field

Another thing scientists have also pointed out is that the Earth is currently experiencing a very strong geomagnetic field.

Two side-by-side images. One side is the stable period on Earth, with blue lines coming out of the top and orange lines coming out of the bottom. On the right is the reversal period, with orange and blue lines coming out of different places of the Earth.

Quatus/Wikimedia Commons

This increases the time between magnetic pole flips even further, as the flip is only likely to happen when the geomagnetic field weakens.

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There May Not Be Anything to Worry About

Some people are worried that the magnetic poles flipping will mean the Earth no longer has a magnetic field, but that’s not quite how this works. The Earth will still be somewhat protected from greater forces in the universe — just not as well as currently.

The North and South magnetic poles with compasses next to them.

Source: TStein/Chetvorno/Wikimedia Commons

It is also important to note that this flip will not happen overnight. As has been seen in the past, it takes time for these flips to happen, and there have also been scenarios where a flip is close to happening but doesn’t actually happen. All in all, the human race shouldn’t worry too much about the magnetic poles flipping.

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