The last full reversal of the Earth’s geomagnetic field took at least 22,000 years to complete, researchers from the US and Japan have revealed. The finding, which was derived by combining volcanic, sedimentary and ice-core records, suggests that reversals can take several times longer than was previously thought. It also further challenges the notion that a future reversal might be completed within a human lifetime.
The geomagnetic field is produced by the motion of the Earth’s liquid outer core, which acts as a dynamo. Although superficially stable – and presently reliable enough to navigate by – the field does change with time. At present, for example, the magnetic North Pole is in the process of drifting towards Siberia, while the field strength has been decreasing steadily by around 5% for each century since human records began.
Records in the rocks
With magnetically aligned minerals in certain rocks having left us with a record of the magnetic field at the time they were formed, we know that such a weakening can be a precursor to a so-called excursion – in which the magnetic poles shift by up to around 45 degree – or a full blown reversal, in which the field flips and settles upside down. These events, products of growing instabilities in the geodynamo, appear to occur every several hundred thousands years or so.
“Reversals are generated in the deeper parts of the Earth’s interior, but the effects manifest themselves all the way through the Earth,” explains Brad Singer, a geologist at the University of Wisconsin Madison.
Exactly what impact a future reversal might have on human civilization, navigation and communications, however, is unclear. And scientists still don’t understand what causes them, how long a reversal would take, and what the warning signs of one might be.
“Unless you have complete, accurate and high-resolution record of what a field reversal really is like at the surface of the Earth, it’s difficult to even discuss what the mechanics of generating a reversal are,” Singer notes.
To help develop a more accurate picture, Singer and his colleagues took magnetic readings of rock samples from seven lava flows from the Canary Islands, the Caribbean, Chile, Hawaii and Tahiti. They also determined the age of the samples using a newly-enhanced method of potassium-argon radioisotope dating.
“Lava flows are ideal recorders of the magnetic field. They have a lot of iron-bearing minerals and when they cool, they lock in the direction of the field,” says Singer. “But it’s a spotty record. No volcanoes are erupting continuously. So we’re relying on careful field work to identify the right records.”
The team complemented their lava-flow records with two other sources of data on the historic orientation of the geomagnetic field. The first of these were magnetic readings taken from the sea floor, which are less precise than those taken from lava flows – due to variations in sediment rates, weaker magnetization, and biological disruption that can smear the preserved magnetic orientations – but can provide a more continuous record.
Secondly, the researchers took measurements of beryllium deposits across time, as preserved in Antarctic ice cores. Beryllium is produced when cosmos rays hit the atmosphere, which means that periods in which the magnetic field was weaker – and therefore allows more radiation to pass through it – can be identified by increased beryllium in the ice cores.
Combined together, the various records allowed the researchers to piece together the nature of the geomagnetic field over a 70,000-year period centred around the Matuyama-Brunhes reversal – the last time the field completely flipped over, around 784,000 years ago.
Singer and colleagues found that the final reversal was relatively rapid by geological standards, taking less than 4000 years. However, it was preceded by two individual excursions within a period of instability lasting 18,000 years – more than twice as long as recent research had suggested reversals should take.
“I’ve been working on this problem for 25 years,” said Singer. “And now we have a richer and better-dated record of this last reversal than ever before.”
Andrew Roberts, an earth scientist from the Australian National University who was not involved in the present study, said: “I take these results to indicate that the last magnetic polarity reversal occurred during a prolonged period of time in which Earth’s magnetic field was weak and unstable.”
Roberts also notes that it is still possible that the main reversal occurred rapidly. “There have been other prolonged unstable periods, such the Blake and post-Blake events between 120 and 90 thousand years ago, during which the field has been demonstrated to have changed extremely rapidly.”
Gillian Turner, a geophysicist from the Victoria University of Wellington who also was not involved in the study, agrees: “As the accuracy and resolution of dating both volcanic rocks and sedimentary sequences continues to improve, we should expect to see excursional activity associated with successful polarity reversals more and more often.”
The research is described in the journal Science Advances.