Will Our “Shifty” Poles Turn Us Upside-Down?

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Consider the implications of the natural shifts in the earth’s magnetic field. Some of us might react with doomsday-type fears; others may simply be curious.

According to the Science information arm of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the magnetic poles of the earth are moving. Not only are they moving, but they appear to have been moving at a faster and faster rate over the past several decades. Does this mean the poles will eventually shift? And if the poles do reverse, will our world be turned upside-down?

Actually, the fact that the poles move is nothing new. Earth’s magnetic field has done some very “shifty” things over the centuries. And there’s some convincing evidence that there have actually been complete reversals of the north and south poles several times before — the result of a slowly moving but steady cycle of movement of the electrically conductive material within the earth’s core. Fortunately, despite these dramatic changes, the planet has survived intact.

The magnetic north pole was first discovered in 1831 in northern Canada (the magnetic north pole’s location has always been different from the geographic north pole) by James Ross, whose ship was stuck in the ice for almost four years. But by the time the pole was located again in 1904, it had migrated northward approximately 50 kilometers. This fact, and subsequent measurements during the 20th century, made it apparent that the pole was moving at an average rate of 10 kilometers per year. Several recent and more precise measurements indicate that the speed at which the pole is moving has actually been increasing steadily for several decades, to almost four times that rate. Amazingly, if the trend continues, the magnetic north pole will have shifted out of the Canadian arctic and into northern Siberia in just a few more decades.

Some outlandish notions have been promoted about what might happen as a result of changes in the earth’s magnetic field. Wild theories range from the world being turned upside-down to a complete collapse of the magnetic field, causing the failure of all electronic devices and eventually the end of life on earth as the result of unobstructed cosmic radiation. But most researchers see such outlandish concerns as without foundation, and the proponents who advance such notions as akin to the doomsday prophets who misrepresent the predictions of the Mayan calendar. They also point to the fact that the earth’s magnetic field has actually gone through some fairly monumental changes over the centuries, including significant increases and decreases in the strength of the field itself, as well as full magnetic pole reversals. The reversals are actually hard to predict because of the irregularity of their cycles. But from the evidence they’ve been able to gather, for much of the earth’s history these reversals have taken place, on average, approximately every 300,000 — 400,000 years. And the fact that the last known reversal happened almost 800,000 years ago has led some to believe that we might be long overdue for such a reversal again. But the record shows that there have also been vast time intervals during which no reversals occurred. So, there’s no real evidence that we’re on the verge of a full pole reversal.

For much of the modern era, navigational devices have depended upon the poles to provide direction through compass readings. But now, in many parts of the world, such readings are more than a degree off. Thankfully, with the advance of global positioning satellites and other high-tech means of pinpointing location, navigators face no looming crisis.

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In recent years, supercomputers have been used to create models that can not only accurately simulate the actions of the earth’s magnetic field, but also predict the various types of anomalies that can and will undoubtedly someday occur as the result of cyclic variations. One prediction is that, in contrast to the present bipolar nature of the field (i.e., a specific “north” pole with a directly opposing “south” pole, analogous to a bar magnet), an imminent pole shift might spawn several poles emerging in various locations across the globe. The computer models also suggest that it’s only during the periods between pole reversals that the earth enjoys singular north and south poles.

Although it’s extremely difficult to construct the necessary testing models, at present there’s no statistical evidence for a correlation between pole reversals or other large geomagnetic anomalies and mass extinctions or other major environmental events. So, despite the fact that the poles are shifting, and quite rapidly at that, there’s no reason to pay any heed to the doomsday heralds out there, and certainly no cause for alarm. But if some predictions do indeed come true and his workshop remains in its present physical location, there might come a day when Santa will have to change his address from North to South Pole.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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