What You Need To Know About Earth’s Magnetic Pole Reversal

3d illustration of solar wind colliding with earth's magnetic field.For the earth materials i used freely-available images from NASA using Cinema 4D (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/BlueMarble/BlueMarble_2002.php)

Recently, there has been talk of a magnetic pole reversal that could have serious consequences for life on Earth. While some warn that a pole shift could be devastating, others say those fears are overstated and melodramatic. Is the situation really as dire as they make it sound?

When is the Pole Shift Supposed to Happen?

No one knows when the pole shift will transpire, but we know complete magnetic reversals have happened every 200,000 to 300,000 years over the past 20 million years. But that regularity hasn’t continued, as the last known reversal occurred roughly 780,000 years ago.  There was an attempted pole shift about 40,000 years ago, though it was unsuccessful.

Throughout Earth’s history the poles have reversed hundreds of times and according to some, this gives us reprieve as there’s no evidence a magnetic pole reversal led to any noticeable devastation or mass extinction on the planet. But as far as we know, there weren’t complex networks of satellites and electronics during those ancient pole flips.

It’s debatable whether the pole shift will happen suddenly enough to cause dramatic effects, or whether it will be so drawn out as to be unnoticeable. Some think it will happen in such a way that it will leave us susceptible to cosmic radiation, causing mutations like cancer. Others believe it will take 1,000 years for the poles to reverse, making it largely unnoticeable.

If it’s true a reversal will take that long, scientists believe we will see more complexity in Earth’s magnetic fields and we may even see more than two poles simultaneously. But eventually, the poles will realign and flip into place opposite of where they currently are, leading only to confusion when trying to distinguish what used to be north from south on our now obsolete compasses.

One sign currently being observed is that the magnetic shield surrounding Earth is weakening at a faster rate than originally assumed. Over the past few centuries, the magnetic field weakened at a rate of 5 percent, but over the past few decades it has weakened at 10 percent. This is some of the strongest evidence a flip is about to occur.

Effects of a Magnetic Pole Shift

In a worst-case scenario, the pole reversal will weaken the magnetosphere to a point that will leave us vulnerable to cosmic radiation. We’re constantly bombarded with ultraviolet, electromagnetic radiation from the sun, but the Earth’s magnetosphere provides a shield to deflect those harmful rays.

In the event of a quick pole shift, it’s possible that shield could be in a state of flux and momentarily unable to protect us from large solar storms. This scenario would be particularly frightening if it damaged power grids, many of which are in some way connected, causing massive power losses and leaving us in the dark. It’s believed this would cost billions of dollars in damage.

This doomsday fear seems to be a bit sensationalist, though. As it turns out, there’s not necessarily any evidence the magnetosphere would shut down like the force field of the Death Star.

While it’s evident the field is weakening, some think it would only lead to slightly increased amounts of radiation in the atmosphere, more likely to affect satellites and objects at higher elevations. If anything, it would allow people at lower latitudes to witness the beautiful auroras currently seen in areas closer to the poles.

 

 

Another legitimate concern is that a pole flip could harm animals who rely on the Earth’s magnetic field for migration. An event like this might temporarily confuse animals already endangered from anthropogenic factors; we’ve disrupted habitats and migratory paths for a number of species already that adding confusion to their natural instincts could be devastating. As it is now, a third of all animals on the planet are endangered from human activity.

Another factor that could play a role in pole reversal is water displacement from climate change. The transfer of water in large quantities can have an impact on the magnetic fields of the planet. From polar ice caps melting, to more water evaporating into the atmosphere, the planet can shift on its axis in response to these transfers, subsequently affecting Earth’s magnetism.

Modelling a Magnetic Pole Flip

A geophysicist at the University of Maryland, Daniel Lathrop, has been working on creating a model of the Earth’s magnetic field with a massive, liquid sodium filled sphere. Lathrop’s experiment is meant to recreate the dynamo theory that is thought to be responsible for the generation of the planet’s magnetic field.

Dynamo theory is a process in which a rotating, convecting, and electrically conducting fluid maintains a magnetic field over astronomical time scales. In the case of the Earth, the planet consists of a liquid iron core within a layer of molten metal rotating at 1000 miles per hour. Changes in the core’s temperature and the planet’s rotation, boil and churn this metal to create the planet’s magnetic fields.

Lathrop created two massive spheres, one within another, recreating the effect in order to predict pole shifts and other geomagnetic phenomena. The inner sphere is 10 feet in diameter, spinning within 13.5 tons of liquid sodium at a rate of 960 rpm, while the outer sphere spins at 240 rpm, or 88 mph.

So far, he hasn’t achieved a dynamo, but has gathered a lot of important information about the fluid dynamics of the Earth’s core. At this scale, for every second Lathrop’s model spins, it simulates about 5,000 years of Earth’s rotation.

Hopefully, the experiment works and he’ll be able to achieve a dynamo effect, providing us with more insight on magnetic pole reversals. But for now, based on fossil records and the scientific data we have, it seems we should be safe from any major catastrophes when the flip finally happens.



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Scientists Successfully Create Brain Interface That Improves Memory

Cognitive-boosting prosthetics are quickly becoming a reality as doctors are seeing success with a neural interface that improves memory function by stimulating electrodes implanted in the brain.

This “closed-loop hippocampal neural prosthesis” has moved from testing on rodents, to actual human application with positive results. The device works by sending electrical signals from an apparatus outside the body to electrodes internally connected to the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped part of the brain that plays a major role in memory.

Researchers involved in the program describe their approach as aiming to use patient’s own neural codes for memory through a closed-loop system in which electrical signals are exchanged instantaneously.

Patients using the system showed a 37 percent improvement in short term memory tests. Scientists were even more surprised to find that long-term memory of 30 to 60 minute intervals had also improved by a similar 35 percent.

But these electrical zaps weren’t just random stimulation. Researchers carefully recorded where and when specific regions of the patients’ brains reacted when performing tasks involving the use of memory, and carefully tailored electrical pulses to induce a similar response.

closed-loop hippocampal neural prosthesis

 

The team originally tested their method on brain tissue, before moving on to rodents, and then monkeys. Now, with their success in humans, they will continue to develop the technology in hopes of someday having a fully implantable apparatus to boost cognitive function.

One of the members of the team touted memory as being part and parcel of one’s personality. Our collection of memories in life certainly play an important role in individuality allowing us to recall experiences that shape our lives.

The team hopes this technology could one day help restore memory function to those affected by drugs, disease, and brain injury.

Their success in memory enhancement comes at a time when interest in cognitive boosting technology is piquing. A number of scientists have been working on mapping out the brains’ neurological connections in hope of developing computer-brain interfaces for superhuman neurological function.

Elon Musk is currently invested in a project called Neuralink, a neural mesh laid over the brain, merging AI with human cognition. Musk says the concept would ideally improve the speed of connection between the brain and one’s digital self, focusing particularly on output.

With the recent success of this closed-loop hippocampal prosthesis, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to expect some investment from Silicon Valley in the future.

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