We do know that many animal species have some form of magnetoreception that enables them to sense the Earth’s magnetic field. They may use this to assist in long-distance navigation during migration. But it is unclear what impact a reversal might have on such species. What is clear is that early humans did manage to live through the Laschamp event and life itself has survived the hundreds of full reversals evidenced in the geologic record.
Can we predict geomagnetic reversals?
The simple fact that we are “overdue” for a full reversal and the fact that the Earth’s field is currently decreasing at a rate of 5% per century, has led to suggestions that the field may reverse within the next 2,000 years. But pinning down an exact date – at least for now – will be difficult.
The Earth’s magnetic field is generated within the liquid core of our planet, by the slow churning of molten iron. Like the atmosphere and oceans, the way in which it moves is governed by the laws of physics. We should therefore be able to predict the “weather of the core” by tracking this movement, just like we can predict real weather by looking at the atmosphere and ocean. A reversal can then be likened to a particular type of storm in the core, where the dynamics – and magnetic field – go haywire (at least for a short while), before settling down again.
The difficulties of predicting the weather beyond a few days are widely known, despite us living within and directly observing the atmosphere. Yet predicting the Earth’s core is a far more difficult prospect, principally because it is buried beneath 3,000km of rock such that our observations are scant and indirect. However, we are not completely blind: we know the major composition of the material inside the core and that it is liquid. A global network of ground-based observatories and orbiting satellites also measure how the magnetic field is changing, which gives us insight into how the liquid core is moving.
The recent discovery of a jet-stream within the core highlights our evolving ingenuity and increasing ability to measure and infer the dynamics of the core. Coupled with numerical simulations and laboratory experiments to study the fluid dynamics of the planet’s interior, our understanding is developing at a rapid rate. The prospect of being able to forecast the Earth’s core is perhaps not too far out of reach.