Environment

The hidden force field that rules our world

In this exclusive excerpt from her new book 'The Spinning Magnet,' Alanna Mitchell explains why we should know and care about Earth's electromagnetic field 
  • Jan 26, 2018
  • 330 words
  • 2 minutes
Aurora borealis light up the night over Waterbury Lake in northern Saskatchewan Expand Image
In her new book, Alanna Mitchell details the importance of Earth's magnetic field and considers how a reversal of the poles might impact the planet's modern infrastructure. (Author photo: Chloe Ellingson; cover image courtesy Viking Canada)
Expand Image
In her new book, Alanna Mitchell details the importance of Earth's magnetic field and considers how a reversal of the poles might impact the planet's modern infrastructure. (Author photo: Chloe Ellingson; cover image courtesy Viking Canada)
Expand Image
Expand Image

For thousands of years, men and women have struggled to understand what magnets mean. They have looked to the heavens, not because they thought the aurora or the celestial bodies could provide clues about magnetism but because they thought that the heavens were the Earth’s puppeteers. If they looked closely enough at the stars, they would be able to read whatever they needed to about our planet. Painstakingly, through experimentation and flashes of inspiration and, finally, math and theoretical physics, they built up the conceptual understanding of magnetism we have today. It is highly abstract. It is ardently creative. It is slightly imperfect. But it is powerful.

And revelatory. It tells us the surprising news that we need to pay close attention to what used to be called our planet’s magnetic soul. The Earth’s magnetic power is on the move. That power is eccentric and, therefore, so are its poles. Eventually, the covert intrigues within the Earth will become so violently disruptive that they will force the poles to switch places. We know this because it has happened hun? dreds of times in the planet’s history. The last time, 780,000 years ago, our species was not yet on the planet. But the long string of pole flips has left traces buried in the seams of the plates that fashion Earth’s crust and in some of the rocks and lava laid down on top of it. When the poles switch again, the one we call north will move to the south. South will be north. As that happens, the magnetic swaddling that protects our planet will waste away to only about a tenth of its usual vigor. In turn, that will affect each of us and the very fabric of our civilization.

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