Well done, UniverseToday contributor Tammy Plotner. Some excellent skeptical content has graced their pages recently regarding why a global magnetic pole reversal is nothing to fear. I suspect the need for this article owes largely to the rising pitch of fear with the impending disaster accompanying the Mayan calendar rollover
Because every other rollover in history has been met with an accompanying disaster, remember? We’re just ever so lucky to have survived both 1000 and 2000 CE! And my car totally exploded when it hit 90,000km recently! (It got better.)
Unlike a hard-wired magnet, Earth’s polarity isn’t constant – it moves around a bit. The reason we have a magnetic field is our solid iron core surrounding by hot, fluid metal. According to computer modeling, this flow creates electric currents which spawn the magnetic fields. While it’s not possible at this point in time to measure the outer core of our planet directly, we can guess at its movement by the changes in the magnetic field. One such change has occurred for almost 200 years now… Our northern pole has been shifting even more northward. Since it was first located, the pole has shifted its place by more than 600 miles (1,100 km)! What’s more, it’s speeding up. It would seem that it’s moving almost 40 miles per year now, instead of the 10 miles per year as recorded in the early 20th century.
Surely if the magnetic field were to disappear, it would be pretty bad for life on this planet — DNA would be shredded, animals would die of sunburn without the benefit of the radiation shielding the magnetic field provides, to the point where eventually, everything would die out. Everything. It wouldn’t happen catacylsmicly or instantly, mind you, but it would happen fairly quickly on a cosmic scale.
But there’s absolutely no way that magnetic field could just up and disappear. You’d have to put the brakes on every iota of angular momentum the core of the planet undergoes. The field itself will shift around a hell of a lot, though, because we’re sitting on top of a really squishy ball of goo with a hard crust, so all that’ll happen is the pole will wander — as it does now, at a rate of 40 miles a year (up from the 10 miles a year we’ve seen in early measurements). And really, all that’s going to happen if the poles reverse is that compasses will point the wrong way. Maybe maps will have to be turned upside down. Or, North and South will have to be reversed to maintain our historical compass measurements. Whatever happens, it wouldn’t be cataclysmic. And I’m sure it’s not going to happen any time soon, given how it seems to take place over several hundred thousand years every time it apparently has happened in the past.
TL;DR: don’t worry, be happy.