This has been running in numerous sensationalist press stories and other outlets with less careful journalists. It’s all based on a story in Undark by a journalist promoting their new book. And it is full of nonsense, utter codswallop. Here is the original story:
This is written by a journalist who has written a good historical book - she got a review in Nature, see below. But the science in this article is appalling. The author just isn’t a scientist and has misunderstood some of her material sadly. Articles like this scare vulnerable people and I have had numerous PM's from people having panic attacks about it over the last few days.
There are many serious errors in the article.
SHORT SUMMARY FOR SCARED READERS
The article has many mistakes in it. There is not any risk at all of areas of Earth becoming uninhabitable to humans. If we get a magnetic pole reversal, then from studies of previous reversals and modeling, the main risk is increased UV as a result of the ozone layer damaged by repeated solar storms. It would mean that you need to wear more sunblock cream on sunny days.
We are not yet in a magnetic pole reversal, and if we are headed for one, it’s likely to start in earnest decades to centuries to perhaps thousands of years in the future and take at least a century or two to complete.
The risks from solar storms are always present, whether it’s a magnetic reversal or not. The main risk of a solar storm is of GPS satellites glitching for hours, recovering once it is over - and of power cuts. We used to think that the power cuts could be severe and cost getting on for a trillion dollars and risk power cut for months or longer.
However, the grid is more resilient than those early studies suggested. It is now thought to be similar to a major hurricane in effect, perhaps up to $100 billion in costs for the US and only local short term power cuts. This is because modern step up transformers are more robust than the few older ones still in the grid, and they are usually multiply redundant. It would have no effect at all on consumer electronics such as laptops or cellphones - the article confused magnetic storms with EMP pulse effects.
Some people get scared that it would lead to climate effects like ice melting at the poles, earthquakes, etc. This is a magnetic pole shift not a geographical one. All that happens is that your compass starts to point in a different direction and eventually it points south instead of north. There is no effect on climate as far as scientists can tell from the geological record. In principle the extra radiation hitting the upper atmosphere could lead to more cloud cover (similarly to the way they cause tracks in cloud chambers), but that's not certain.
The magnetic field change would surely confuse migrating birds but enough of them must have somehow survived the last time this happened, 41,000 years ago to continue their species, even the Arctic tern which migrates from the North to the South polar region and back again every year.
If we are headed for a magnetic pole flip, it's probably not going to happen until many generations into the future. But it is bound to happen some time and our future descendants may have to deal with it, which will involve more use of sun block cream, hardened satellites, and compasses that behave in an erratic fashion pointing different directions depending where you are on the globe. Those seem to be the main issues.
If you are someone who panics and gets scared by stories like this, you may find our Doomsday Debunked facebook group helpful.
I won't go into the evidence for a pole flip or the effects in great detail here. It's already covered in my:
Instead let’s look at the many serious mistakes in this article.
SOME SERIOUS MISTAKES
- "The Earth’s magnetic field protects our planet from dangerous solar and cosmic rays, like a giant shield."
From solar storms yes. From cosmic rays - the weaker ones yes. The stronger ones, no they punch all the way through.
But it only protects astronauts in the ISS and passengers in high flying jets especially in polar regions, where they are most vulnerable during a major solar storm.
Our atmosphere protects us from them for anyone who lives below the atmosphere rather than in orbit or traveling at high altitude in polar regions.
Even with no magnetic field at all, then we are protected by ten tons per square meter of atmosphere. Many particles do get through, the ones you can see in a cloud chamber. Many of those are secondary particles from ultra high energy particles that hit the upper atmosphere. But the magnetic field makes no difference to those. Anything that can get through ten tons per square meter of atmosphere is not going to be easy to deflect with a magnetic field.
So no, even if there is no magnetic field at all, then we are not going to get dangerous levels of cosmic radiation at ground level.
- "Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, one of the world’s experts on how cosmic radiation affects the Earth, fears that parts of the planet will become uninhabitable during a reversal. The dangers: devastating streams of particles from the sun, galactic cosmic rays, and enhanced ultraviolet B rays from a radiation-damaged ozone layer, to name just a few of the invisible forces that could harm or kill living creatures."
He must have been misquoted. There is no way that significantly greater amounts of cosmic rays or solar storm particles can get through the atmosphere with a weaker magnetic field. She also calls "particles" "forces" in that quote.
The only risk is from UV radiation.
- "Solar energetic particles can rip through the sensitive miniature electronics of the growing number of satellites circling the Earth, badly damaging them."
The particles generally cause memory glitches forcing some satellites to reboot. They go offline for at most the duration of the storm. This has happened many times during previous solar storms. They don’t destroy the satellites permanently. It’s micrometeorites and space debris that destroy satellites.
GPS would fail yes. But no idea what the bit about “govern electric grids” is about. There have been several studies on the effects of severe solar storms on the electricity grid, and none say there is a problem with GPS for the grids. Though they do say that there can be a problem with electrical surges in the step up transformers connected to the grid. But only the older ones. The newer ones are hardened to solar storms.
- "The grid’s transformers could be torched en masse. Because grids are so tightly coupled with each other, failure would race across the globe, causing a domino run of blackouts that could last for decades."
Early studies suggested that there could be massive grid failures yes. Through damage to step-up transformers attached to power lines. But it’s now thought the effects would be much less than expected - the transformers are multiply redundant and most are now hardened against solar storms. Also this is not an issue particularly with magnetic field reversals. You can have a huge solar storm punch through the magnetic field at any time, whether it is strong or weak. More often when it is weak.
The predictions nowadays are of a cost of tens of billions of dollars similar to damage from a major hurricane. A 2012 report for the US comes to a similar conclusion to other recent studies. The most likely effect is voltage instability leading to powercuts that would be resolved in a matter of hours. Some older transformers would be damaged but they doesn’t support the conclusion of earlier reports that large numbers of transformers would be damaged. Quoting from the conclusion of their executive summary:
“NERC recognizes that other studies have indicated a severe GMD event would result in the failure of a large number of EHV transformers. The work of the GMD Task Force documented in this report does not support this result for reasons detailed in Chapter 5 (Power Transformers), and Chapter 8 (Power System Analysis). Instead, voltage instability is the far more likely result of a severe GMD storm, although older transformers of a certain design and transformers near the end of operational life could experience damage, which is also detailed in Chapter 5 (Power Transformers).”
I cover this in more detail in Debunked: We are in danger from a magnetic pole shift in the near future and see also my reply here.
- "No lights. No computers. No cellphones. Even flushing a toilet or filling a car’s gas tank would be impossible. And that’s just for starters."
This confuses solar storms with EMP's. A nuclear weapon exploded in the upper atmosphere would cause an EMP and that can damage computers and such like. A solar storm can only make a difference to things that are connected to long wires many kilometers long. The fields are incredibly weak but they can build up currents in very long wires. They will have no effect at all on your computer or cellphone.
I haven’t given any cites in this section because it is something I covered before in earlier articles in detail.
This is the main one, which goes into all the techy details of whether we are headed for a magnetic field reversals, it's effects (mainly on the ozone layer), and the effects of solar storms on satellites and the power grid:
See also my
- Debunking: Solar Storms to end all life on Earth
- Could our Sun explode? And what would the effects be of a major solar storm?
GOOD REVIEW IN NATURE
Now, her book is still probably worth reading, if you ignore any dire warnings like this. Apparently her interviews and historical treatment is good.
Her book got a good review in Nature - but it does say the warnings of impending doom in the subtitle are a distraction: “And lastly, the subtitle’s dire warnings of impending doom (The Electromagnetic Force that Created the Modern World — and Could Destroy It) is an unnecessary distraction, being no match for the real-life stories inside.”
Mitchell’s portrait gallery is researched with a depth and breadth that make its protagonists’ triumphs and failures compelling. She also gives entertaining accounts of today’s working geoscientists. They include geologist Jacques Kornprobst, custodian of Bruhnes’s legacy, and Daniel Baker, an authority on extreme space-weather events. Her interviews provide insights into their thoughts and actions that transcend the stereotypes of inscrutable nerd or heroic explorer.
The perceptive reader will notice a few disconnects. For one, Mitchell gives short shrift to the explanation of just how Earth generates and maintains its magnetic shield in the metallic core. The human drama behind recent developments, which featured innovative numerical experiments using massive computers, is also curiously omitted. And lastly, the subtitle’s dire warnings of impending doom (The Electromagnetic Force that Created the Modern World — and Could Destroy It) is an unnecessary distraction, being no match for the real-life stories inside.
It shows how easy it is for a good journalist (presumably) - at least one who wrote a good book, to write an article with scientific errors in it. She can’t have run it past an expert on solar storms for checking it before posting it.
REPOST OF THESE DOOM FORECASTS THROUGH THE NEWS MEDIA
Here are some of the reposts - none of these journalists can have run the article past an expert on solar storms first before reposting it. Presumably they assumed the original author had done that already. The “red top tabloids” would run it anyway - but some of these you’d expect to take more care. The Futurism one is generally okay - the main quibble with that is just that they cited the Undark article as a source without criticism. Most of the other ones don’t cite sources but are clearly based on the Undark article.
- Earth's magnetic poles could reverse soon, with potentially devastating consequences if we dont prepare (ZME Science)
- The Earth's magnetic poles are overdue for a switch (Futurism)
- TECH BLACKOUT: Overdue magnetic pole reversal sparks fears your TVs and phones will CRASH (Daily Express)
- Earth's magnetic poles show signs they are about to FLIP (Daily Mail)
- Earth's magnetic poles could be about to flip - with serious consequences for humanity (International Business Times)
- Earth’s magnetic poles might be gearing up for a long-overdue flip—leading to a planet-wide blackout (Newsweek)
- Earth's magnetic poles could be about to FLIP sparking chaos and mass blackouts (Sun)
- Earth's magnetic poles show signs they are about to FLIP (Cetus news)
- Earth’s Magnetic Poles Show Signs They’re About to Flip—Exposing Humans to Radiation and Planet-Wide Blackouts (Yahoo news)
EARLIER ARTICLE ON THE TOPIC FROM JANUARY 2017 FROM PHYS. ORG
The Futurism story is the most accurate of those and cites this article as well from phys.org
Unlike the Undark one - this one is from Phys.org and is reputable, but is from January 2017. It talks about some of the issues you get during a magnetic field reversal.
For instance the magnetic field becomes like this with multiple north and south poles:
A compass would be either useless or you’d use it in unusual ways with it sometimes pointing East or West. And migrating birds would get confused, you’d think, though somehow they seem to have survived the last time this happened 40,000 years ago.
It is worth a read to find out what the real issues are in a magnetic field reversal. Which would also take decades to more likely centuries or thousands of years.
SEE ALSO MY
- Debunked: We are in danger from a magnetic pole shift in the near future
- Debunking: Solar Storms to end all life on Earth
- Could our Sun explode? And what would the effects be of a major solar storm?
And if you get easily scared by stories like this, check our our Doomsday Debunked facebook group.