What happens when the poles flip?

Mar 21, 2014 by Fraser Cain, Universe Today
Uranus with its moons and rings. Credit: Hubble

Have you heard the startling news that the Earth's poles might flip? Perhaps in the response to a close pass from the mysterious Planet X? Are you imagining the entire Earth actually flipping over on its side or rotating upside down, possibly while Yakkity Sax plays in the background? When will this happen? Can this happen?

First, there's no secret planet hurtling through the Solar System causing chaos and orbital disturbances. So could the Earth spontaneously physically flip over? Some have already been tilted and flipped.

Take a look at Uranus. Its is 98-degrees. We assume the planet started with the same tilt as the rest of the Solar System, and some event in the ancient past caused it to fall over. It could have collided with another planet, billions of years ago, or with other giant planets pushed it over.

And then there's Venus, its is 177-degrees. That's essentially upside down. Venus is turning in the opposite direction from every other planet in the Solar System. Standing on the surface of Venus, you would see the Sun rise in the West and set in the East. Astronomers don't know why this happened, perhaps it was gravitational interactions or a collision with another planet.

To actually flip a planet off its axis would take an event so catastrophic that it would devastate the planet. Don't worry, as far as we know, those kinds of events and interactions stopped happening billions of years ago.

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That's the good news. The Earth isn't likely to just fall over, or get bashed on its side like an office tower under the might of Godzilla.

Now what about those . On Earth, they can and do reverse on a regular basis. The Earth is often shown like a giant bar magnet, with a north magnetic pole and a south magnetic pole. Over vast periods of time, the Earth's north pole becomes its south pole, and vice versa. Geologists measure the magnetic configuration of iron particles in ancient lava flows. in one part of the lava flow, the particles oriented with one , and then in another, the particles were reversed. It turns out the planet reverses its polarity every 450,000 years, and the last reversal happened about 780,000 years ago. Which means it could happen in the next few thousand years.

If the Earth's poles did reverse, what would happen to us? If the magnetic field disappeared entirely, the planet would be bathed in radiation from the Sun, which would likely cause an increase in cancer. But the Earth's atmosphere would still protect us from majority of radiation.

Schematic illustration of Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: Peter Reid

What about mass extinctions? Scientists have wondered if there's a link between them and magnetic reversals.

Fortunately for us, there doesn't seem to be any connection. Whenever geomagnetic reversals happened in the past, it didn't devastate life on Earth. So don't worry about it.

There is a pretty good chance it won't happen in our lifetime, and maybe not for hundreds of thousands of years. And even if the Earth's poles flip, it wouldn't be the end of the world. You might need to take a sharpie to your compass though.

Explore further: Researchers find planet-sized space weather explosions at Venus

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User comments : 13

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Bogey
1 / 5 (1) Mar 21, 2014
OK, this will probably sound a bit mad, and I haven't done the maths. It began as an idea for a Sci Fi novel.
If the field flips, does it fall to 0, and reform in the opposite direction, or does it go into a state of flux. Rapidly oscillating for a period of time, until deciding on the new orientation.
If it did how fast would it flip. I only have some early very small scale chaos examples for reference.
Would that sweeping magnetic field be strong enough to cause damage to the infrastructure
as in a solar storm/ Carrington type event. Imagine that for a few thousand years, until it stabilized again.

End of tech as we know it.

ps, I want my name in the credits, when Hollywood turn it into a B movie.

Bogey
1 / 5 (2) Mar 21, 2014
I suppose I should add:-

Be Afraid, Be very Afraid.

Or perhaps,

Just when you thought it was safe to follow your GPS.
rockwolf1000
5 / 5 (3) Mar 21, 2014
Clearly the author lost track of the underlying thesis. "What happens when the poles flip?" Much ado about axial tilts and unrelated nonsense but practically nothing in regards to the article's title. Do people get paid for this crap?
Jizby
Mar 21, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
nkalanaga
5 / 5 (2) Mar 21, 2014
I've heard several of the locals (Appalachia) talking about "the Earth turning over", so the parts about it being almost impossible are relevant. There seem to be a lot of people who actually think it could happen.

Bogey: whether the magnetic field drops to 0 or becomes chaotic seems to be debatable. I found papers arguing both ways. As for damage, everyone seemed to agree that the field would be weaker during a reversal, so it wouldn't do any damage. It may affect animal migration, but the change would barely be noticeable from year to year, so they should have time to adapt.

GPS doesn't rely on the magnetic field, so your device will still work.
rockwolf1000
5 / 5 (3) Mar 21, 2014
I've heard several of the locals (Appalachia) talking about "the Earth turning over", so the parts about it being almost impossible are relevant. There seem to be a lot of people who actually think it could happen.


You are getting your information from the locals in Appalachia? OK then.
nkalanaga
4.2 / 5 (5) Mar 21, 2014
No, I know better, but, living here, I'm almost forced to listen to them. I was just pointing out that some people do believe such stuff, and articles debunking the myths MIGHT have some benefit. After 35 years back here, I doubt that the locals would read them, assuming they can read, which is a big assumption. But spreading the facts might help a few.

I actually work with one who honestly believes the Sun orbits the Earth, "because the Bible says so", so there's still a lot of work to be done before they can truly enter the 20th century, much less the 21st.
nkalanaga
5 / 5 (1) Mar 21, 2014
Jizby: I've heard the same theories for Uranus, either a large impact early in its formation, or interactions with the nebula and planetesimals over an extended period.

As for Venus, another theory, with at least two papers supporting it, is atmospheric tides. Apparently, given a dense enough atmosphere, and strong enough solar tides, the most stable ending rotation is NOT tidally locked, but a slow retrograde rotation. If that theory is correct, Venus didn't "turn over", but rather slowed, stopped, and reversed its original prograde rotation.
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Mar 22, 2014
OK, this will probably sound a bit mad, and I haven't done the maths. It began as an idea for a Sci Fi novel.
If the field flips, does it fall to 0, and reform in the opposite direction, or does it go into a state of flux. Rapidly oscillating for a period of time, until deciding on the new orientation.
If it did how fast would it flip. I only have some early very small scale chaos examples for reference.
Would that sweeping magnetic field be strong enough to cause damage to the infrastructure
as in a solar storm/ Carrington type event. Imagine that for a few thousand years, until it stabilized again.

End of tech as we know it.

ps, I want my name in the credits, when Hollywood turn it into a B movie.

Too late , Bogey, 2012 movie was 2 years ago...
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Mar 22, 2014
MO it could be explained with http://i.imgur.com/iz18kRs.gif in the same way, which would mean, that this mechanism is scale invariant.

Fractal, even...
EU2AA
not rated yet Mar 22, 2014
Clearly the author lost track of the underlying thesis. "What happens when the poles flip?" Much ado about axial tilts and unrelated nonsense but practically nothing in regards to the article's title. Do people get paid for this crap?

I agree with rockwolf1000
Pictures are beautiful, but it makes no sense
The reason for the imbalance - is an asymmetric glacier in Antarctica
Inclination of 11.5 degrees creates the effect of compensation
alfie_null
3 / 5 (2) Mar 22, 2014
OK, this will probably sound a bit mad, and I haven't done the maths. It began as an idea for a Sci Fi novel.

You should do the math. Or find someone to advise you as you write your novel. It's a requirement for good hard SF.

As an aside, while considering this I googled "how strong is earth's magnetic field" and was dismayed to find not one, but two links to Institute for Creation Research stuff. On the first page! Eww! Ugh!

Either ICR is getting skilled at page optimizing (which many might consider a form of lying, arguably a sinful act), or Google is serving me a badly customized selection - what it inaccurately thinks I might find useful.
Urgelt
5 / 5 (2) Mar 24, 2014
The article posed the question and then failed to answer. That's called 'click-baiting.'

I get that the internet is all about clicks and eyeballs, but this is a science site, not TMZ or HuffPo. We hope for better behavior here.

But the question is actually rather interesting. It deserves a serious look, if a look is to be offered at all.

What happens to migratory birds? Radio propagation off of the ionosphere? Weather? Auroras? What happens if a big solar flare strikes the Earth while the magnetic field is off-line? How long will the transition take? What other effects might there be?

This isn't the right audience to hear 'There's no Planet X.' The general public probably needs to learn that, but...

Oh. I just remembered the swarms of eccentrics posting comments here who believe just about any crazy thing.

Okay, fine. But this article only scratches the surface of an interesting question. It's still click-baiting. And that's not so fine.
Jizby
Mar 24, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
nkalanaga
not rated yet Mar 25, 2014
The Sun's gravity causes the atmosphere to rotate at a different rate than the solid planet, and the energy is then transferred to the planet itself. Unfortunately, the original PDFs seem to have been removed, so that one has to pay to read the papers.

Long term evolution of the spin of Venus - I. Theory. Alexandre C.M. Correia, Jacques Laskar and Olivier Nщron de Surgy

Long term evolution of the spin of Venus - II. Numerical simulations. Alexandre C.M. Correia and Jacques Laskar.