Do you know that Earth’s protective magnetic field is weakening at a rate of 5 percent per decade? And there is nothing we can do about it.
Is It Time to Panic? No!
Our magnetic poles might be flipping. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), in the 21st century, the movement of the magnetic north pole has increased to about 65 km (40 miles) per year from earlier about 10 km ( 7 miles) a year. Considering that the last pole reversal, The Brunhes–Matuyama reversal, happened about 780 000 years ago, we are due for a change.
The reversals indeed lead to the weakening of Earth’s magnetosphere, but there is really no need to panic. Earth and life on it survived just fine during the previous reversals.
Reversals are the rule, not the exception. Earth has settled in the last 20 million years into a pattern of a pole reversal about every 200,000 to 300,000 years, although it has been more than twice that long since the last reversal. A reversal happens over hundreds or thousands of years, and it is not exactly a clean back flip. Magnetic fields morph and push and pull at one another, with multiple poles emerging at odd latitudes throughout the process. Scientists estimate reversals have happened at least hundreds of times over the past three billion years. And while reversals have happened more frequently in “recent” years, when dinosaurs walked Earth a reversal was more likely to happen only about every one million years.
Even during the reversal, the magnetic field protects Earth’s inhabitants from cosmic radiation. Only an incredibly huge Solar storm can possibly affect us. Although, there is no evidence that the life would be destroyed or even significantly harmed. But human civilisation is less resilient than life in general. Under certain circumstances, humankind might face an apocalyptic scenario, an EMP style.
The Beauty of Solar Storms
On the night of the 1 September 1859, the world witnessed one of the most glorious auroras in recorded history. Moreover, even tropical regions could enjoy that spectacular show. Unfortunately, it was hard to share that experience with others due to massive telegraph system failures around the globe. Both the beautiful sky performance and the telegraph malfunction were caused by the most massive solar storm in recent history — the Carrington Event.
Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) and solar flares, the main forces behind solar storms, frequently disturb the Earth’s geomagnetic fields. However, they rarely reach dangerous proportions. Most of the time, the northern lights are the only sign of a passing storm. The Carrington Event was a rare occasion of super high solar activity. Its timing was also very fortunate: the humanity did not depend yet on electricity. Today things would be very different.
Neither pole reversals, nor solar storms, nor our dependence on electricity can spell doomsday on their own. Only the unfortunate combination of all three could create a truly devastating outcome. It seems to be an unlikely event. But we need to consider that polar change takes hundreds of years. The magnetic field is likely to be less protective during all this time. Our Sun is a huge nuclear fusion reactor which constantly emits matter and radiation. The possibility of another big solar storm in the next 1000 years is far from zero. But most importantly, we use more and more electric-powered technologies in all aspects of our lives.
With weakened protection, a solar storm does not have to be huge to fry the electronics and shut down the power grid. Three times weaker than the Carrington Event, March 1989 storm caused a nine-hour blackout in Québec. Earth’s magnetic field is weaker today at least by 10 percent, so the damage would be greater. Modern consumer electronics, navigation systems, communications, etc. are probably more vulnerable to Sun-caused EMP than in the late 80s.
The main danger is the infrastructure failure, especially during the winter. Urban areas that house about 70 percent of world population will struggle the most. Their functioning depends on electricity and synchronised operation of many agencies, services, and businesses. If the infrastructure is not restored shortly, city dwellers will have no access to basic necessities: food, water, and heating (or cooling in desert areas). And while I do not believe in complete societal breakdown, riots, looting, and increase in crime will likely start within the first week.
A global EMP would be the second worst doomsday scenario. Even if all military and government equipment is EMP-hardened, restoring communications, transportation, infrastructure, and production can take a very long time. Even if governments somehow manage to organise a swift response, the death toll might be enormous.
The Good News
The good news is that this doomsday scenario is completely avoidable. Our existing technologies (with some improvements) allow creating an additional magnetic shield. We can launch a satellite system with inflatable electrostatic membranes to deflect solar radiation. The idea originated from a necessity to protect spacecraft during interplanetary voyages. But NASA is considering it as an option for creating an artificial Mars magnetosphere.
The project of this magnitude will cost a lot of money and will require joint planetary effort. I wonder how hard it will be to convince world governments to participate. I hope that the safety of the human kind will outweigh selfishness.