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We need a global treaty

17 Jun 2020 | News Roundup

Something seems to be up, down or sideways with the Earth’s magnetic field, including a potential geomagnetic reversal, and it’s time we demand action. Not that anyone knows what is happening, or why, or whether it’s good bad or catastrophic, or what our actions would do about it, but why should that matter? Time for action! and all that. The Independent reports that “The Earth's magnetic field is weakening between Africa and South America, causing issues for satellites and space craft. Scientists studying the phenomenon observed that an area known as the South Atlantic Anomaly has grown considerably in recent years, though the reason for it is not entirely clear.” Better yet, let’s keep politics far away. It is reassuring how unsettled science can be when politics steers clear, and how minds close and rhetoric hardens as soon as it sails in.

If you read a news story about the science being settled or “experts say” or some politician claiming “we’re following the science” you know contentious politics loom large. Could be climate, could be quarantine, could be gender-related. But where politics is absent, the story is about vigorous debate among scientists, and researchers going “Oh, that’s weird” and finding unexpected and cool things in their research.

Or possibly not cool. One of the really scary things our planet does periodically is switch the north and south poles. Ack! What? Is another of these “geomagnetic reversals” coming? The truth is, nobody knows. They’re not that rare; since the late Cretaceous it seems to have happened 183 times. Nobody’s sure of the details including how long it takes, possibly 7,000 years. Possibly 70. Somewhere in there. Or 12,000. Could be.

They’re also not sure what triggers it. So we should not have said “periodically” without the qualification that the periods are not regular. It’s one more of those pesky non-linear systems that defies modeling, especially when data is so scarce and ambiguous.

We’d like to know because if it happens we’re all going to die. Unless we don’t. Even the implications are dramatically unclear. Scientists are unsure whether the Earth’s magnetic field vanishes entirely during these geomagnetic reversals or just fluctuates, or how much it matters. Does the possible loss of the Van Allen belts let lethal radiation wipe out species or do the harmful cosmic rays get blocked lower down?

It’s very important to know whether we face sudden death from space due to Mother Earth going non-polar. And even if we don’t face X-rays for life, or death, the implications for modern civilization might be catastrophic. Even a major “solar storm” (a.k.a. a “Geomagnetic storm”) would wreak havoc in our satellite-and-internet-dependent world, while a geomagnetic reversal could make a repeat of the massive 1859 “Carrington Event” that crashed the U.S. telegraph network look like a balloon rubbed on a kid’s hair then stuck to a wall by comparison.

As for when one’s due, we again have no idea. The last one seems to have happened 780,000 years ago. And the fluctuations in the South Atlantic Anomaly are super-ominous unless they’re merely worrying or in fact trivial.

All these things matter a lot. But we just don’t know. And nobody’s claiming we know, not because this sort of science is different from the stuff mentioned above but because it hasn’t been poisoned by politics and advocacy. (You can even claim to be channeling God without raising hackles if He’s woke on climate.) So the next time someone tells you the science is settled on some major issue and you must not resist or even question their preferred policy response, touch a magnet and smile.

One comment on “We need a global treaty”

  1. It's due to climate change, silly! No, but seriously, this at least is something that no-one can pretend that we can do something about & blame humans for, or can they?

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