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Magnetic myths

by Donald Prothero, Dec 26 2012

All throughout the long buildup up to last week’s latest failed prediction of an global apocalypse, you would hear people claiming that the earth-shattering catastrophe of Dec. 21 would include “pole shifts” or “changes in the earth’s magnetic field” and all sorts of other sciencey phrases, proclaimed by people with absolutely no idea what they were talking about. The idea of “magnetism” is one of the most popular memes in the lexicon of pseudoscientists and New Agers, since magnets operate “mysteriously” and exert a force at a distance. From the days of Franz Mesmer claiming he had “magnetism” over people, to the trite phrase “animal magnetism,” the concept of magnetism has always been mysterious and misunderstood. Hence the big market for sticking magnets on various parts of your body to “cure” you. All they do is waste money, and possibly demagnetize the magnetic strip on your credit cards. The idea that somehow the earth’s magnetic field will shift abruptly or that the earth’s core will stop rotating (as in the idiotic Hilary Swank movie “The Core”) or even more wildly, that the earth’s rotational pole will change, are all common ideas out there in Wacko-Land.

Among the crazy ideas out there is that somehow the magnetic poles will shift and destroy all electrical devices (this web site), thus destroying civilization. Or this site, which claims that pole shifts will cause earthquakes and hurricanes, and NASA is covering up what’s happening. Or this bizarre post, which freely uses the words “gruesome” and “horror”. Or this site, which cherry-picks items from actual science posts and then completely misinterprets what they mean.

This is just a small sampling of the pseudoscientific garbage all over the internet posted before Dec. 21. Most of us know enough about science and apocalyptic predictions to guess that they are not worth taking seriously, but very few people have bothered to debunk this stuff. Unfortunately, we saw lots of sad consequences of people who did take the ridiculous apocalyptic predictions seriously, often with tragic results.

Among my other specialties, my professional training is in paleomagnetism, and I’ve conducted over 35 years of published research in the field, so I’m pretty familiar with what we do and don’t know about the earth’s magnetic field and how it behaves.

First, some science. The earth’s magnetic field has at least two components, the dipolar field (illustrated above), which makes up about 90% of the magnetism we normally feel, and a non-dipole field, which is normally hard to detect beneath it but makes up at least 10% of the earth’s field. The dipole field is not exactly lined up with the rotational axis of the earth (i.e., there is a small angle between magnetic north and true north), but over geologic spans of time, magnetic north wanders around the vicinity of the rotational pole; this movement known as secular variation. Studies have shown that over the long term, its position averages out to being identical to the rotational pole. The field is generated by complex fluid dynamos operating within the outer core of the earth (made of iron and nickel), which operates a bit like a spinning dynamo made of copper wire (a good conductor) which generates a magnetic field and electrical current when it spins within a magnetic field. The exact nature of how this works is a matter of the complexities of geophysical fluid dynamics, so scientists are still working on modeling what kinds of dynamos are found in the outer core. But whatever their configuration, the model has to fit the constraints that the direction can be reversed (so a compass pointing north now would point south 800,000 years ago), and also explain the odd behavior of the field when the dipole component weakens and the non-dipole component becomes visible.

Now let’s consider some of the common false claims that plague the internet:

1) The earth’s field is about to reverse! The earth’s field does reverse direction, but normally the process takes 7000-10,000 years to complete. It does not happen in days or weeks, as some claim. We know this from detailed studies of thick stacks of lava flows which erupted over the span of a reversal, as well as high-resolution deep-sea cores which span the interval as well. So if the field were beginning to reverse, we would not know for at least a few thousand years. And we cannot predict when this reversal will occur, since they have been occurring on an irregular basis for all of geologic history, and at least a 300 times in the past 100 million years. Reversals typically occur roughly every 200,000-300,000 years apart, although the last reversal (the Brunhes-Matuyama boundary) was over 780,000 years ago. Some, however, are much shorter (less than 50,000 years), while in some cases the earth’s field remained stable for 30 million years. This irregular pattern of field reversals is completely unpredictable, but it also gives a nice non-periodic, non-repeating signal, like a bar code, that allows magnetic stratigraphers to correlate their local magnetic sequences with the global pattern.
2) When the field reverses and vanishes, we’ll all be bombarded by cosmic radiation! When the field slowly reverses over thousands of years, only the dipolar component of the field weakens. The non-dipole component of the field is always present, and there’s no evidence that the earth has ever been unshielded from cosmic radiation or completely lacked magnetic field. Nor is there any evidence that a slightly weaker magnetic field over the thousands of years when the dipole field is reversing will have any affect on life, or on our electrical grid, or anything else. Calculations show that during reversal, the field is only slightly weaker than we feel normally—about the difference between the field we would feel at the equator and the field we would feel at the magnetic north pole. In other words, it is undetectable except by sensitive instruments. In fact, a former professor of mine (Jim Hays of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a micropaleontologist and my co-author on several papers) conducted the crucial experiment on the issue over 40 years ago. He was the first to see the evidence of field reversal in deep-sea cores from the Antarctic, and wondered if there was any effect on life. Jim Hays’ first effort in 1971 demonstrated no association between field reversals and extinctions, and it has since been corroborated over and over again by a wide variety of statistical techniques (see here and here). And why should there be any extinctions? If the difference in the field felt by organisms is so slight, and the effect on the cosmic ray influx is so tiny, there’s no reason to expect otherwise. At very worst, a weaker magnetic field with a relatively strong non-dipole component might disorient animals (from bees to whales to birds) that navigate by the field direction, but there’s no way to test that hypothesis in the fossil record, and no evidence that it’s happening to organisms right now.

3) What about recent studies which showed much more rapid field changes? These were conducted by my former colleague Scott Bogue at Occidental College. Bogue was looking at a set of lava flows that cooled as the field was reversing and weakening, and he focused on just the field recorded when the dipole field was nearly gone, and the non-dipole field was revealed. The non-dipole field does indeed move rapidly and in weird ways, but there’s no evidence that anything has been affected by such weird field directions during the short period of time that it is the dominant field of the earth. And there’s no evidence that the much stronger dipolar field will ever change that fast.

4) What about the evidence that the magnetic pole is rapidly changing direction? This is a long-studied and well-known phenomenon called secular variation, as I have already mentioned. It’s not news, nor is it some scandalously dangerous discovery being hidden by NASA. It’s a constant feature of the earth’s magnetic field, but over time the average direction of the magnetic pole averages out to be approximately the same as the rotational pole. We can study secular variation over thousands of years as recorded in deep-sea cores, lake sediment cores, and many other records. There is no scary change that threatens us, just a lot  of noisy wobbling of the magnetic north that averages out to nothing in the long run.

So the next time you hear some “prophet” worrying about the earth’s magnetic field, you can assume that it’s misinformed and false. There are plenty of real dangers to worry about, like global climate change, so we don’t need to scare people by hyping false ideas.


  • Hays, J.D. 1971. Faunal extinctions and reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field. Geological Society of America Bulletin, 82, 2433-2447.

25 Responses to “Magnetic myths”

  1. Max says:

    I heard some conservatives warn about a geomagnetic storm like the Carrington Event, due to its similarity to an EMP attack. They even accused power companies of denying the danger to the electrical grid for the sake of profit.

    • Pete says:

      Well, the electric companies are probably ignoring grid dangers (like lack of redundancy and partitioning for less wide-spread outages) for profit, but I think that’s not apocalypse conspiracy, but business conspiracy

      • tmac57 says:

        There does appear to be a good deal of conspiracy thinking concerning smart meters,which are a key component of the smart grid.

  2. steven sashen says:

    Speaking of electromagnetic mythology… is anyone at SkepticBlog going to take on “Earthing” and “Grounding”?

  3. Trimegistus says:

    I’m starting to wonder if Mayan Apocalypse-a-Thon 2012 was the first _ironic_ apocalypse, in the sense that everyone talking about it and promulgating it didn’t really believe anything was going to happen.

    Does anyone know if there were _any_ true believers, anywhere, who were genuinely expecting the world to end last week?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      There were a LOT of New Agers doing the usual stuff last Friday, as reported by the media. They seemed to be sincere…

    • Max says:

      “The troubled 16-year-old was a committed vegan, a staunch supporter of animal rights and the environment, and had turned to the Buddhist faith as she pursued the compassionate world she sought.
      But the impact of leaving school and beginning adult life, coupled with fears that the world would end in 2012 sent her to take her own life, an inquest has heard…
      Searches of Isabel’s computer at her home in Neston revealed she had looked up queries about how many paracetamols it would take to overdose, as well as the thousands of websites devoted to the conspiracy theories about 2012 seeing the end of the world.”

      • Trimegistus says:

        Well, that’s sad. Ironic apocalypse actually claimed a life.

      • tmac57 says:

        This kind of sad event seems to happen to at least a few people (sometimes many more) every time one of these rumors takes hold.
        I guess the best we can do,is to get the word out that it is a recurring bit of nonsense,and point to all of the failed predictions in times past.I think the skeptical and scientific community did an excellent job this go round.

      • Max says:

        You’d think that when the girl visited thousands of websites on the subject, she would’ve come across some skeptical ones.

      • tmac57 says:

        Almost certainly,but then that’s the power of confirmation bias.The real question,is why would someone want to believe the worst,despite a mountain of disconfirming information.

      • Max says:

        Yeah, she may have been looking for a way out, and this was an excuse.

        “She would flippantly say ‘oh but it’s all going to end next year anyway’ and we would try and laugh it off,” said her father.
        “She believed something was going to happen that would change the world, I’m not sure whether she ever fully believed that it was going to end, but she definitely thought something was going to happen.”

      • Wscott says:

        Has anyone know of other cases like this one? I don’t mean to dismiss or minimize this tragic story, but given that thousands of teenagers commit suicide in the US every year it’s not actually that surprising that a few chose that day. Again, I’m not minimizing teen suicide in general or in this case specifically. But I am curious if there was any statistically-significant increase in suicide rates tied to apocalypse predictions? Hmm…sounds like a good thesis topic for some grad student out there…

        As an aside: we had a scare last week when a friend’s son posted what looked like a suicide note on Facebook. Took his dad an hour to get ahold of him, because he had his cell turned off. Turned out he was fine, it was just random goth poetry, and he was mortified that all us old fogeys took it seriously. So happy ending.

  4. MadScientist says:

    I never understood why people are so attracted to those myths …

  5. Archie Clebberdale says:

    What I find striking is the long stable period in the Cretaceous. I wonder what caused it?
    I know that long sequences of random 1s and 0s tend to contain long strings of identical digits, but the there is such a big gap between that 36 Ma period and the next runner up (5 Ma, also in the Cretaceous) that I don’t consider that to be an adequate explanation in this case.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      There’s a lot of discussion in the geophysical community about why the Long Cretaceous Normal occurred, along with a similar long reversed period (30 m.y.) in the Permian. In the case of the Long Cretaceous Normal, it coincides with a period of very rapid sea-floor spreading, breaking all the remnants of Pangea apart and moving them rapidly in different directions. SHeridan (1987, Tectonophysics 143, 59) argued that there may be an inverse relationship between core and mantle activity, with the locus of energy shifting from one to another. When the core is relatively quiet (no magnetic reversals), the energy is in the mantle, causing more rapid tectonics. When the core is busy (many magnetic reversals), the energy is there and the mantle is not so active, so plate movement slows down. It seems plausible, although I’ve never followed whether anyone has tested these ideas in the meantime…

  6. d brown says:

    OK. “pole shifts” or “changes in the earth’s magnetic field” is old news. But I have always wondered about the comic radiation the magnetic field traps and keeps away from us. Somebody who knows out there?

  7. Brian says:

    What would you actually obverse, if you could live through one of those 7000-year-long pole reversals? Does the magnetic field slowly weaken as the north magnetic pole start to turn “southy” and vice versa? Would there be a period in the middle, when the dipole field exactly counterbalanced the non-dipole field and compasses wouldn’t point anywhere in particular (after which compasses would start pointing south)? Or does the north pole actually physically migrate from roughly north to roughly south? Would there be an in-between point where the compasses would point to some place on the equator?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Based on some of the detailed paleomagnetic studies that have been done, there would be no apparent difference in direction at all (unless you could measure magnetic intensity) until the point where the non-dipole field takes over, at which point it would move in all sorts of directions slowly over the course of years. But within a few decades the new dipole field would take over and it would be back to stable directions again. It hasn’t happened in 780,000 years so no human has ever witnessed it, and there’s no evidence in the fossil record that life was affected.

  8. AL says:

    No one made the insane clown posse magnet joke yet!?

  9. Kenneth Polit says:

    Whenever I hear some “prediction” that smells a little fishy, I can always count on the good people here at Skepticblogs to tell me the truth. Thank you, Dr. Prothero, and please extend my thanks to all of your partners here.

  10. David says:

    What amazes me is the lack of curiosity amongst the suicidal Armageddon types. If I truly believed that the world were about to end, suicide would be last on my mind. I’d want to stick around for the fireworks.

  11. Steven St. John says:

    “All they do is waste money, and possibly demagnetize the magnetic strip on your credit cards.”

    But you can bet that those practicing magnetic healing techniques will make darn sure they don’t compromise the client’s credit card…