Thursday, February 1, 2018

More Alarmism

There are a few causes for alarmism that show up periodically. One of them is the Yellowstone Volcano Will Destroy All Life On Earth.

The one that's back right now is "The Earth's magnetic poles will flip, destroying our civilization and causing a mass extinction."

The latest one is caused by a book excerpt - and, of course, the tabloids and the worst popular science sites are having a field day.

So, let's unpack it.

A geomagnetic pole reversal has occurred numerous times in Earth's history. It's a natural phenomenon. It has nothing to do with the Earth's position in orbit - a polar flip will not make the Earth suddenly spin around.

What is actually true?

1. Yes, a geomagnetic reversal could happen at any time. The last one was 780,000 years ago, meaning we're overdue. There's some data indicating it will happen in the near future - say in the next  2,000 years or so. That's a few minutes in geological terms, but it seems pretty unlikely we'll wake up tomorrow and all the compasses will point south instead of north.

2. Fluctuations in the magnetic field may damage satellites, sensitive electronics and even power grids. However, as the reversal is a long-term phenomenon (see below), it's not going to abruptly destroy our power grids and satellites. However, we may get some nasty blackouts because we have lost some of our protection from space weather.

What is not true?

1. Geomagnetic reversals cause mass extinctions. The data just doesn't support this. It's true that migrating animals might get a bit confused and we might see fewer, say, barn swallows for a while, but they'll get themselves sorted out.

2. The Earth's magnetic field will disappear, exposing us to cosmic radiation and everyone will get cancer. The truth is that there will be a dip in the magnetic field that may cause an increase in cancer for a while. It also may be that airline pilots and flight attendants will experience an increased risk because they go further up in the atmosphere (the rest of us are protected by all of that air).

3. The flip will happen in seconds. No, the data indicates it will take a while - as long as a few thousand years. It'll be slow enough that animals - and humans - will adapt to it just fine.

4. Large areas of the Earth will be rendered uninhabitable. Again, there is no evidence of any significant effect on plant or animal life during a flip. This wonderful theory is supposedly being touted by Dr. Daniel Baker, an expert in cosmic radiation. Dr. Baker does exist, and he is an expert on cosmic radiation, but the quote comes from a single source - he's a space weather expert, not a geomagnetics expert, and it seems unlikely any reputable scientist would be saying this when, again, fossil evidence shows it is not true. (I suspect he was misunderstood or misquoted. He hasn't said anything yet and doesn't seem to have a twitter).

Most people are blaming a sensationalist journalist for this.

But tl;dr.

Yes, it is very likely the Earth's magnetic poles are about to flip.

No, it is not going to happen literally tomorrow.

No, we are not all going to die.