Earth’s magnetic field is one of the most mysterious features of our planet. It is also essential to life as we know it, ensuring that our atmosphere is not stripped away by solar wind and shielding life on Earth from harmful radiation. For some time, scientists have theorized that it is the result of a dynamo action in our core, where the liquid outer core revolves around the solid inner core and in the opposite direction of the Earth’s rotation.
The Earth’s magnetic field, generated some 3,000km below our feet in the liquid iron core, threads through the whole planet and far into space – protecting life and satellites from harmful radiation from the sun. But this shielding effect is far from constant, as the field strength varies significantly in both space and time.
If you could travel back in time 41,000 years to the last ice age, your compass would point south instead of north. That’s because for a period of a few hundred years, the Earth’s magnetic field was reversed. These reversals have happpened repeatedly over the planet’s history, sometimes lasting hundreds of thousands of years. We know this from the way it affects the formation of magnetic minerals, that we can now study on the Earth’s surface.
Whether or not a planet has a magnetic field goes a long way towards determining whether or not it is habitable. Whereas Earth has a strong magnetosphere that protects life from harmful radiation and keeps solar wind from stripping away its atmosphere, planet’s like Mars no longer do. Hence why it went from being a world with a thicker atmosphere and liquid water on its surface to the cold, desiccated place it is today.
The Earth is blanketed by a magnetic field. It’s what makes compasses point north, and protects our atmosphere from continual bombardment from space by charged particles such as protons. Without a magnetic field, our atmosphere would slowly be stripped away by harmful radiation, and life would almost certainly not exist as it does today.
The Earth’s magnetic field surrounds our planet like an invisible force field – protecting life from harmful solar radiation by deflecting charged particles away. Far from being constant, this field is continuously changing. Indeed, our planet’s history includes at least several hundred global magnetic reversals, where north and south magnetic poles swap places. So when’s the next one happening and how will it affect life on Earth?