You’re probably like billions of other people on the planet earth, happily going about your daily life without a care in the world for any of the fundamental forces that make life on earth possible. One of those forces is experiencing an unexplained anomaly and unexpectedly weakening, potentially leaving the planet earth vulnerable to the almost complete extinction of life.
If what scientists are watching develop in real time persists, humanity has at best years left to live, and the only thing to survive us will be microbial life in the deepest caves or darkest depths.
First discovery of dangerous energy of the sun
In 1958 it was well understood that the sun sent a steady stream of very dangerous high energy particles and radiation crashing towards the planet earth. What kept life safe from this peril was the planet earth’s powerful magnetic field, stretching out thousands of miles into space and shielding us from the worst of the solar wind. So try and imagine their horror when scientists in 1958 discovered that this invisible shield we rely on for life to continue on planet earth, was actually weakening.
What is the mysterious anomaly exactly?
Known as the South Atlantic Anomaly, it is an area of weakening magnetic field that grows on average by 12.4 miles per year (20 km). The area has been closely monitored since its discovery, and today this chink in the earth’s protective armor comes down to just over 100 miles over the surface of our planet. The South Atlantic Anomaly has already taken a devastating toll on manned and unmanned spacecraft, and modern satellites can’t operate in the area without special precautions- or risk destruction.
Texans might not like it, but the truth is all life on planet earth is solar powered- yes, even you. The food you eat either ate food that got its energy from the sun, or was food that got its energy from the sun. For the kids in the cheap seats, we’re talking about plants here.
Why is the sun important to us?
The sun is basically the giver of all life, but it can also be the taker of that same life. That’s because all that nice warm sunshine you enjoy on a sunny summer day is only a tiny percentage of the energy the sun is blasting out into space in your direction. Basically, the sun is blasting a pure murder-hate beam of radiation straight at your dumb face, but good guy earth is there to shield you from the worst of it so all you feel is a nice warm ray of light and maybe some slight sunburn.
That’s thanks to the planet earth’s magnetic field, which is generated by the movement of molten iron and nickel in the earth’s core. All that moving and shaking of those metals in our molten core generates a massive electrical current, which in turn creates a magnetic field which stretches out deep into space. That magnetic field is in effect a shield, which deflects or traps harmful solar wind and ensures that instead of your DNA being blasted apart, you’ll at worst suffer a sunburn from staying outside too long.
How bad could it be, if the magnetic field were to collapse suddenly?
Four and a half billion years ago Mars had a thick, luscious atmosphere, and plenty of liquid water to go around. We can see evidence of huge lakes and rivers all over the surface of the planet, and we know from studying the chemistry of the planet that it was once wrapped up in a thick atmosphere. Then, everything changed- in geological time scales, practically overnight. The world that may have once held an advanced dolphin species capable of space flight- you can’t prove that didn’t exist- is today only a dusty rock.
Scientists still don’t understand why Mars’ magnetic field shut down, but they believe that it was due to its smaller size compared to earth, as well as the composition of its core. The earth is bigger than Mars- almost twice as big- which means we have a large molten core that would take longer to cool than Mars’ own core. But that might only be part of the picture.
Rock is a great insulator, that’s why our core has remained molten so long- but it’s not just heat from its original formation that’s still keeping the core hot, but also the decay of radioactive elements inside our core that’s helping to keep things nice and warm. Some scientists suspect that Mars lacked such heavy radioactive elements in its core, which would have led to a much faster cooling core than the Earth’s own.
With a weakening magnetic field, the solar wind sandblasted Mars’ atmosphere away, and eventually, its water. Any life- such as space-faring dolphins- would have been bombarded by cosmic and solar radiation, their DNA destroyed by high energy particles ripping it to pieces. Unless that life moved deep underground, extinction was quick to follow.
What could happen with the anomaly in the future?
The South Atlantic Anomaly has been closely monitored for decades, and has now split into two ‘valleys’ that continue to move across the ocean and grow in size. However, it’s not quite all doom and gloom just yet, as new data shows that the South Atlantic Anomaly may perhaps be part of a natural cycle that’s been going on for millions of years.s chink in the earth’s protective armor comes down to just over 100 miles over the surface of our planet.
We already know to expect anomalies in the Earth’s magnetic field, and that’s because the molten core is not uniform in its iron and nickel content- whose motion generates the magnetic field. These irregularities in the content will inevitably lead to irregularities in the strength of the magnetic field around the earth, and thus the Southern Atlantic Anomaly is born.
There’s no evidence that the earth’s magnetic field ever weakened to the point of causing a mass extinction event, so scientists are hopeful that the South Atlantic Anomaly will continue to evolve over time before eventually correcting itself. For now, the greatest danger that the South Atlantic Anomaly poses is to low earth satellites, which frequently pass through the anomaly.
They must be careful to shut down sensitive electronics or suffer serious consequences- such as a Japanese satellite that destroyed itself when charged particles slipping through the weakened magnetic field damaged some of its electronics.
Even the space shuttle experienced the shutting down of laptops as it flew through the anomaly, and the ISS regularly passes through it but thanks to its thick shielding suffers few if any ill effects.
What to expect of the anomaly?
While scientists don’t expect the South Atlantic Anomaly to lead to a magnetic field collapse, there may be no telling how the Southern Atlantic Anomaly evolves in the future. If things take a turn for the worse and the anomaly dips below the atmosphere- something it is already dangerously close to doing- it could spell disaster for any living beings in the geographic vicinity of the anomaly.
Thankfully for now the anomaly is over the Southern Atlantic, but as it moves and grows it could eventually pass over heavy population centers. What the Southern Atlantic Anomaly means for life on earth is still largely unknown.