Could the Earth's magnetic poles be about to swap places – and what would it mean for us?

Antarctica: surprisingly magnetic. Image: Getty.

The Earth’s magnetic field surrounds our planet like an invisible force field – protecting life from harmful solar radiation by deflecting charged particles away. Far from being constant, this field is continuously changing. Indeed, our planet’s history includes at least several hundred global magnetic reversals, where north and south magnetic poles swap places. So when’s the next one happening and how will it affect life on Earth?

During a reversal the magnetic field won’t be zero, but will assume a weaker and more complex form. It may fall to 10 per cent of the present-day strength and have magnetic poles at the equator or even the simultaneous existence of multiple “north” and “south” magnetic poles.

Geomagnetic reversals occur a few times every million years on average. However, the interval between reversals is very irregular and can range up to tens of millions of years.

There can also be temporary and incomplete reversals, known as events and excursions, in which the magnetic poles move away from the geographic poles – perhaps even crossing the equator – before returning back to their original locations. The last full reversal, the Brunhes-Matuyama, occurred around 780,000 years ago. A temporary reversal, the Laschamp event, occurred around 41,000 years ago. It lasted less than 1,000 years with the actual change of polarity lasting around 250 years.

Power cut or mass extinction?

The alteration in the magnetic field during a reversal will weaken its shielding effect, allowing heightened levels of radiation on and above the Earth’s surface. Were this to happen today, the increase in charged particles reaching the Earth would result in increased risks for satellites, aviation, and ground-based electrical infrastructure. Geomagnetic storms, driven by the interaction of anomalously large eruptions of solar energy with our magnetic field, give us a foretaste of what we can expect with a weakened magnetic shield.

In 2003, the so-called Halloween storm caused local electricity-grid blackouts in Sweden, required the rerouting of flights to avoid communication blackout and radiation risk, and disrupted satellites and communication systems. But this storm was minor in comparison with other storms of the recent past, such as the 1859 Carrington event, which caused aurorae as far south as the Caribbean.

Aurora borealis. Image: Soerfm/wikipedia.

The impact of a major storm on today’s electronic infrastructure is not fully known. Of course any time spent without electricity, heating, air conditioning, GPS or internet would have a major impact; widespread blackouts could result in economic disruption measuring in tens of billions of dollars a day.

In terms of life on Earth and the direct impact of a reversal on our species we cannot definitively predict what will happen as modern humans did not exist at the time of the last full reversal. Several studies have tried to link past reversals with mass extinctions – suggesting some reversals and episodes of extended volcanism could be driven by a common cause. However, there is no evidence of any impending cataclysmic volcanism and so we would only likely have to contend with the electromagnetic impact if the field does reverse relatively soon.

We do know that many animal species have some form of magnetoreception that enables them to sense the Earth’s magnetic field. They may use this to assist in long-distance navigation during migration. But it is unclear what impact a reversal might have on such species. What is clear is that early humans did manage to live through the Laschamp event and life itself has survived the hundreds of full reversals evidenced in the geologic record.

Can we predict geomagnetic reversals?

The simple fact that we are “overdue” for a full reversal and the fact that the Earth’s field is currently decreasing at a rate of 5 per cent per century, has led to suggestions that the field may reverse within the next 2,000 years. But pinning down an exact date – at least for now – will be difficult.

Magnetic reversal. Image: NASA.

The Earth’s magnetic field is generated within the liquid core of our planet, by the slow churning of molten iron. Like the atmosphere and oceans, the way in which it moves is governed by the laws of physics. We should therefore be able to predict the “weather of the core” by tracking this movement, just like we can predict real weather by looking at the atmosphere and ocean. A reversal can then be likened to a particular type of storm in the core, where the dynamics – and magnetic field – go haywire (at least for a short while), before settling down again.


The difficulties of predicting the weather beyond a few days are widely known, despite us living within and directly observing the atmosphere. Yet predicting the Earth’s core is a far more difficult prospect, principally because it is buried beneath 3,000km of rock such that our observations are scant and indirect. However, we are not completely blind: we know the major composition of the material inside the core and that it is liquid. A global network of ground-based observatories and orbiting satellites also measure how the magnetic field is changing, which gives us insight into how the liquid core is moving.

The recent discovery of a jet-stream within the core highlights our evolving ingenuity and increasing ability to measure and infer the dynamics of the core. Coupled with numerical simulations and laboratory experiments to study the fluid dynamics of the planet’s interior, our understanding is developing at a rapid rate. The prospect of being able to forecast the Earth’s core is perhaps not too far out of reach.The Conversation

Phil Livermore and Jon Mound are associate professors of geophysics at the University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.