Earth’s Magnetic Field

You have been in a magnetic field all your life. The Earth, just like any other planet in the solar system, spawns its own magnetic field. The strength of the field is around B =0.000031 T, but research has shown that this value is far from constant. Earth’s magnetic field is constantly changing. How do we know this? When rocks solidify, they store the strength and direction of the magnetic field. Hence, as long it is possible to figure out the orientation of a rock at the time of solidification, it will tell us what the field was like back then

For rocks that are billions of years old, deducing the original orientation is impossible. Continental drifting has displaced and turned them too often. But thanks to the incredibly low speed of drifting continents, scientists were able to recreate the magnetic field of Earth for the past several million years. This revealed quite a bit.

For one, the poles don’t stand still, but rather wander across the surface with around 50 km per year. The strength of the field varies from practically zero to 0.0001 T (about three times the current strength). And even more astonishingly: the polarity of the field flips every 300,000 years or so. The north pole then turns into the south pole and vice versa. The process of pole reversal takes on average between 1000 and 5000 years, but can also happen within just 100 years. There is no indication that any of these changes had a noticeable impact on plants or animals.

Where does the magnetic field come from? At present there’s no absolute certainty, but the Parker Dynamo Model developed in the sixties seems to be provide the correct answer. The inner core of Earth is a sphere of solid iron that is roughly equal to the Moon in size and about as hot as the surface of the Sun. Surrounding it is the fluid outer core. The strong temperature gradient within the outer core leads to convective currents that contain large amounts of charged particles. According to the theory, the motion of these charges is what spawns the field. Recent numerical simulations on supercomputers have shown that this model is indeed able to reproduce the field in most aspects. It explains the intensity, the dipole structure, the wandering of the poles (including the observed drifting speed) and the pole reversals (including the observed time spans).

It is worth noting that the pole which lies in the geographic north, called the North Magnetic Pole, is actually a magnetic south pole. You might recall that we defined the north pole of a magnet as the pole which will point northwards when the magnet is allowed to turn freely. Since unlike poles attract, this means that there must be a magnetic south pole in the north (talk about confusing). By the same logic we can conclude that the Earth’s South Magnetic Pole is a magnetic north pole.

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