Science

Doomsday Predictions About Earth’s Magnetic Pole Reversal Overblown

If you heard that Earth’s magnetic poles are expected to flip and have been worried about the sky falling ever since, you’re certainly not alone. However, experts now say that all the doomsday predictions about what might happen if or when a reversal happens are little more than hype. In reality, the human race probably presents more of a threat to the planet than the magnetic reversal.

doomsday predictions
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Doomsday predictions sparked by magnetic pole reversal fears

The non-profit media outlet Undark sparked the doomsday predictions about the magnetic pole reversal last week with an extensive write-up about what scientists generally believe regarding the issue. The article was actually an excerpt from a book by Alanna Mitchell.

She wrote that scientists believe the next magnetic pole reversal is long overdue because the last one happened about 780,000 years ago. Scientists also say the poles have attempted to reverse over the years only to “snap back into place, in what is called an excursion,” according to Mitchell. According to her, scientists also “know that when they flip next time, the consequences for the electrical and electronic infrastructure that runs modern civilization will be dire.”

She explained that a sort of magnetic battle has been observed and that although scientists “can’t say for sure” that a magnetic reversal is happening, but they also “can’t rule out the possibility that a reversal is beginning.” Her doomsday predictions are based on the expected weakening of the magnetic field that surrounds the Earth at the time of the reversal.

She states that scientists believe it may “waste away to as little as a tenth of its usual force” and that it could be “compromised for centuries while the poles move, allowing malevolent radiation closer to the surface of the planet.” She describes a world in which technology no longer works and working plumbing is a thing of the past.

Experts disagree about the doomsday predictions

National Geographic and other media outlets followed up with articles denying the doomsday predictions sparked by the Undark post and media outlets that sensationalized reporting about Mitchell’s book excerpt. According to National Geographic, there have been “many” magnetic pole reversals throughout Earth’s history, and there’s no need to worry about the next one, whenever it happens.

Media outlets that sensationalized the doomsday predictions called for “a geomagnetic apocalypse in which tumors run rampant, satellites fall from the sky, and life on Earth will cease to exist as we know it,” wrote National Geographic. While the publication does agree that life will be different, it disagrees that the world will end as a result of the magnetic flip.

It offers a more extensive description of the science Mitchell was referencing in her book excerpt, which I found particularly interesting because I wanted to know more of the details she wrote about, as I’m always a skeptic about such things. According to National Geographic, the north and south poles swapped places about every 200,000 to 300,000 years or so, except for the last time, which scientists believe happened about 780,000 years ago based on “magnetic fingerprints locked into ancient rocks.”

Any truth to the doomsday predictions?

The media outlet didn’t fully deny that things could get very bad if or when the poles switch again, but it did emphasize that it could be quite some time before it happens again. Further, the consequences of a switch are unclear, and it says that it’s actually a good thing that the current switch is taking a long time to happen because it means the human race has time to prepare for it.

The big thing that will affect how serious things get if or when it does happen is how long the magnetic field is down and how weak it gets. The magnetic field protects Earth from cosmic and solar radiation, so if it remains weaker than usual for an extended period, we could start seeing some ill effects. However, the strength of Earth’s magnetic field fluctuates over time anyway, NASA has said.

National Geographic also states that the reversal won’t be as dramatic as many felt led to believe. Apparently, the biggest change is that compasses will point toward Antarctica rather than the North Pole. Another major effect will be that birds and animals which migrate will get lost for a while, although this will eventually correct itself and life will go on.

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