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Analysis & Opinion

Geomagnetic field: when will compass fail?

16:50 05/09/2008

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Kislyakov) - The recent trouble with the ISS, caused by simple computer virus capable of stealing logins and passwords for computer games only, was minor compared to possible environmental changes that could make space flights impossible.

This could also cripple aviation and television, and even put terrestrial life at risk.

It's about the Earth's geomagnetic field, changing rapidly and frequently. Scientists from the Institute for Geomagnetism at the Russian Academy of Sciences say the Earth's magnet poles are gradually drifting towards the Equator, with the field intensity falling slowly, but steadily. The latter was considered to reach zero point in about 2,000 years, which would be a disaster for living organisms. The rate of changes happening to the planet's liquid core (movement of the liquid and the solid parts of the Earth's core generate an electric potential, making the planet a sort of an electric generator - A.K.), however, could mean that the polarity shift is going to happen much sooner.

If a hundred years ago somebody said that the South and the North could switch places, he would be definitely taken to a mental hospital. Nevertheless, as early as 1906, it was revealed that in the past magnetisation of some rocks was opposite to that of the present day, making it clear that some time ago it was different from the modern time.

In 2001, an international polar expedition revealed that in the recent seven years the North magnetic pole shifted around 300 km (186.4 miles). Currently, it is drifting 40 km (24.85 miles) a year from the Canadian Arctic shelf towards Russia's Severnaya Zemlya islands. Scientists predict the North Pole could eventually be found in South Atlantic. An extensive anomaly area with the magnetic field intensity at around 60% of the predicted value shows the forecast is likely to score.

In the recent 20 years, the planet's magnetic field intensity has decreased by 1.7%, and in South Atlantic by 10%. In the last two hundred years, the Earth's magnetic field has seen a 10% decrease in intensity.

What is the danger, after all? Russian scientists say changes in the magnetic field would lead to the anti-radiation protection falling, with space flights becoming impossible and energy-dependent systems, including mobile phones and satellites, failing. Then, solar and space radiation would affect the genome of the organisms inhabiting the Earth, causing some of them to become extinct, and others to have a much larger per cent of mutations. Taking into account the solar flares, accompanied by extremely powerful electrojet currents, life is likely to become impossible on Earth before the full magnetic field collapses.

Sounds terrible. But may be there's no need to dramatise and we will not face giant blood-thirsty killer ants from Hollywood horror movies? May be. Recent reports say that in the last 90 million years, the magnetic poles changed around every 500,000 years, with no total extinction of mass genetical mutations of living organisms taking place and the atmosphere remaining a reliable guarantor of security of the Earth's biosphere.

Equipment, created by the human genius and becoming his incorruptible prison ward, would have it harder.

The above mentioned processes are especially hazardous for computer systems, which are vital for the modern economy. Even today, magnetic storms caused by solar activity inflict huge losses to mankind. A decrease in the Earth's magnetic field intensity would boost the power of magnetic storms and therefore cripple flight connection, with avionics failing.

Besides that, any flight by plane would be dangerous to man. Today, in the low-pressure upper atmosphere, the effect of radiation is becoming more marked. In 2000, a Euro Commission directive relegated pilots and flight attendants to high risk jobs. The geomagnetic field keeps protecting us during flights so far, but what lies ahead?

On the other hand, scientists haven't established so far, if the changes happening to the geomagnetic field are reversible. Nobody has ever found out why the Earth's history has seen times when the magnet poles remained unshifted as long as 50 million years. May be, things will turn out well anyway?

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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