There will come a day when your handy compass points North, towards today’s south pole. And, when it happens, it could happen fast.

The concept of the Earth’s magnetic field flipping may sound crazy, but it has happened before. Many times across Earth’s history.

A team of scientists from Italy, France, Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley have shown these flips in the magnetic field can happen very fast. In less than 100 years, fast.

“It’s amazing how rapidly we see that reversal,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Courtney Sprain. “The paleomagnetic data are very well done. This is one of the best records we have so far of what happens during a reversal and how quickly these reversals can happen.”

The team’s findings will be published in the November issue of Geophysical Journal International. You can check out the study for yourself here. (it does require a subscription to Geophysical Journal International)

What would happen if the poles flipped? The scientists that participated in the study highlighted several effects of a reversal in poles. “Today, however, such a reversal could potentially wreak havoc with our electrical grid, generating currents that might take it down,” reads a press release from UC Berkeley.

An increase in cancer rates could also occur. The Earth’s magnetic field protects us from harmful particles from the sun. A weakening field could lead to an increase in cancer rates.

“We should be thinking more about what the biologic effects would be,” Paul Renne, director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center and a professor at the University said.

How did the team figure this out?

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The new finding is based on measurements of the magnetic field alignment in layers of ancient lake sediments now exposed in the Sulmona basin of the Apennine Mountains east of Rome, Italy. The lake sediments are interbedded with ash layers erupted from the Roman volcanic province, a large area of volcanoes upwind of the former lake that includes periodically erupting volcanoes near Sabatini, Vesuvius and the Alban Hills.

“What’s incredible is that you go from reverse polarity to a field that is normal with essentially nothing in between, which means it had to have happened very quickly, probably in less than 100 years,” said Renne.

So, when can we expect this to happen again? That’s the million dollar question. No one knows. But, the study does show when it does happen – it could happen within one lifetime.

Image credit: UC Berkeley

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