When Compasses Point South
Fortunately, those scientists in the know—paleomagnetists, to be exact—would have a ready answer. Such reversals in the Earth's magnetic field, they'd tell you, are, roughly speaking, as common as ice ages. That is, they're terrifically infrequent by human standards, but in geologic terms they happen all the time. As the time line at right shows, hundreds of times in our planet's history the polarity of the magnetic shield ensheathing the globe has gone from "normal," our current orientation to the north, to "reversed," and back again.
The Earth is not alone in this fickleness: The sun's magnetic shield appears to reverse its polarity approximately every 11 years. Even our Milky Way galaxy is magnetized, and experts say it probably reverses its polarity as well. Moreover, while a severe weakening or disappearance of the magnetic field would lay us open to harmful radiation from the sun, there's little evidence to date that "flips" per se inflict any lasting damage (see Impact on Animals).
It might sound as if scientists have all the answers regarding magnetic reversals. But actually they know very little about them. Basic questions haunt researchers: What physical processes within the Earth trigger reversals? Why do the durations and frequencies of both normal and reversed states seem random? Why is there such a disproportionately long normal period between about 121 and 83 million years ago? Why does the reversal rate, at least during the past 160 million years, appear to peak around 12 million years ago?
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