for National Geographic News
Earth's magnetic field is fading. Today it is about 10 percent weaker than it was when German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss started keeping tabs on it in 1845, scientists say.
If the trend continues, the field may collapse altogether and then reverse. Compasses would point south instead of north.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood has already seized on this new twist in the natural-disaster genre. Last year Tinseltown released The Core, a film in which the collapse of Earth's magnetic field leads to massive electrical storms, blasts of solar radiation, and birds incapable of navigation.
Entertainment value aside, the portrayal wasn't accurate, according to scientists who say the phenomenon of Earth's fading magnetic field is no cause to worry.
"The field has reversed many times in the past, and life didn't stop," said Gary Glatzmaier, an earth scientist and magnetic field expert at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Glatzmaier is keeping an eye on our planet's weakening magnetic field as he tries to learn more about how Earth's geodynamo works. The geodynamo is the mechanism that creates our planet's magnetic field, maintains it, and causes it to reverse.
Earth's geodynamo creates a magnetic field that shields most of the habited parts of our planet from charged particles that come mostly from the sun. The field deflects the speeding particles toward Earth's Poles.
Without our planet's magnetic field, Earth would be subjected to more cosmic radiation. The increase could knock out power grids, scramble the communications systems on spacecraft, temporarily widen atmospheric ozone holes, and generate more aurora activity.
A number of Earth's creatures, including some birds, turtles, and bees, rely on Earth's magnetic field to navigate. The field is in constant flux, scientists say. But even without it, life on Earth will continue, researchers say.
"There are small fluctuations, which lead to nothing, and large ones, which we know from the geologic record are associated with reversals," said Peter Olson, a geophysicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
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