Did you know that the Earth actually has two north poles? That’s right: There’s the geographic one in northern Canada, but also a magnetic one. The geographic north pole never changes, the magnetic one, however, is always on the move – and right now we are racing towards a complete pole reversal. If the poles flip, it could be devastating to the human race and life as we know it to be. (1)
Will the North and South Poles Flip?
The magnetic poles have always been moving, this is nothing new. In fact, the poles have actually flipped before: Since the last extinction, they completely reversed roughly every 300,000 years. For some reason, however, another flip has not occurred in 780,000 years. (1)
Over the last 150 years, the magnetic north pole (again, not the place where Santa and his elves call home) has moved 685 miles northwest. 100 years ago, the magnetic north pole was in Northern Canada. Today, it is over the Arctic Ocean and making its way towards Siberia. (2) Recently, however, it has been speeding up to 25 or 30 miles per year. (1, 3)
It is important to note that the Earth doesn’t always have just one north and one south magnetic pole. There is evidence to suggest that for hundreds or even thousands of years at a time in Earth’s history, the planet had up to eight poles at a time. In the past when this happened, a pole reversal occurred. (1)
Humans have never before experienced a complete pole reversal before, so if the poles flip, what will happen to us?
What Will Happen if the Poles Flip?
Earth having more than two poles is not a good thing. This causes the planet to have multiple magnetic fields which then fight each other. When the poles flip, this battle weakens the Earth’s protective magnetic field by up to 90%. (1)
The Earth’s magnetic field is extremely important because it protects us from harmful radiation from space. (1) Without that protection, that radiation can (1):
- Damage our cells, causing cancer
- Fry electric circuits and grids, causing us to lose our cellular networks, internet, etc.
- Expose planes to higher levels of radiation and make flying unsafe
- Disrupt animals’ internal compasses and navigational abilities
- Cause some places to become too dangerous to live
Even out in space, our satellites will need extra shielding or the radiation will fry their circuit boards. Astronaut’s cancer risk will also increase dramatically. (1) This is already being seen in one area where the field has weakened, known as the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA). (4)
What is the South Atlantic Anomaly?
The SAA is an area over South America and the South Atlantic Ocean where there is an unusually weak spot in the magnetic field. This allows charged particles from the Sun to come closer to the Earth’s surface than usual, which interferes with the circuit boards and data collection of satellites passing through there. (4)
NASA is studying the SAA closely because it provides clues as to what’s happening to the Earth’s magnetic field deep inside the Earth’s inner layers. This area is expanding northwest and is weakening further. Recent data also shows that at the SAA’s weakest point, it has split into two lobes. This further complicates things for satellites and spacecraft. (4)
Will the Poles Actually Flip?
Currently, scientists are skeptical, considering the time from the last flip until now has more than doubled from its usual 300,000 years. Despite this, they are still making sure that they are prepared. (1)
Scientists are working on updating the World Magnetic Model. This is the mathematical system that lays the foundations for navigation and locating magnetic north – from cell phones to ships, to commercial airlines. (5)
So should we panic as if the world is coming to an end? No – scientists say if the poles flip, it certainly won’t happen any time soon. Rest assured, many of the world’s brightest scientific minds are tracking the poles and making appropriate adjustments so that our lives will continue without much change at all. (3)
- “Earth’s north magnetic pole is on the move — here’s what will happen when our poles flip.” Business Insider. Gene Kim and Jessica Orwig February 5, 2019.
- “Shifting north magnetic pole forces unprecedented navigation fix.” Business Insider. Alister Doyle. January 11, 2019.
- “Earth’s magnetic north pole is moving too fast for experts to keep up. Now scientists might know why.” Business Insider. Aylin Woodward. April 22, 2019.
- “NASA Researchers Track Slowly Splitting ‘Dent’ in Earth’s Magnetic Field.” NASA. August 17, 2020.
- “Magnetic north just changed. Here’s what that means.” National Geographic. MAYA WEI-HAAS. February 4, 2019.