How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 651

What would happen if the two magnetic poles of the earth were to be reversed? Would it affect climate and weather? Has this ever happened before? — HP, Birmingham, AL
The earth's magnetic poles have reversed before, many times. A record of the earth's magnetic field is made whenever a magnetic mineral is cooled through a magnetic transition temperature called the Curie point (named after Pierre Curie, the husband of Marie Curie, who first identified it). Volcanic lava often includes such magnetic minerals and as the lava cools, it records a snapshot of the earth's current magnetization. By examine ancient lava flows, scientists have pieced together a detailed record of the earth's magnetization and have found that the earth's magnetic poles have drifted about and reversed many times, typically every few hundred thousand years or so.

I can't think of any mechanism whereby these reversals would seriously affect climate or weather. However, these reversals would affect some migratory animals that use the earth's magnetic field to navigate. In principle, these animals might migrate the wrong direction and die out. However, there are always a few of each species that are born with their magnetic compasses reversed. While these backward animals might not survive during normal times, they would prosper during a reversal and would help to perpetuate their species. Moreover, experiments have shown that individual animals can adapt to the magnetic reversals as well.


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