Geomagnetic reversal

Geomagnetic reversal
Geomagnetic polarity during the late Cenozoic Era. Dark areas denote periods where the polarity matches today's polarity, light areas denote periods where that polarity is reversed.

A geomagnetic reversal is a change in the Earth's magnetic field such that the positions of magnetic north and magnetic south are interchanged. The Earth's field has alternated between periods of normal polarity, in which the direction of the field was the same as the present direction, and reverse polarity, in which the field was in the opposite direction. These periods are called chrons. The time spans of chrons are randomly distributed with most being between 0.1 and 1 million years. Most reversals are estimated to take between 1,000 and 10,000 years. The latest one, the Brunhes–Matuyama reversal, occurred 780,000 years ago. Brief disruptions that do not result in reversal are called geomagnetic excursions.



In the early 20th century geologists first noticed that some volcanic rocks were magnetized opposite to the direction of the local Earth's field. The first estimate of the timing of magnetic reversals was made in the 1920s by Motonori Matuyama, who observed that rocks with reversed fields were all of early Pleistocene age or older. At the time, the Earth's polarity was poorly understood and the possibility of reversal aroused little interest.[1][2]

Three decades later, when Earth's magnetic field was better understood, theories were advanced suggesting that the Earth's field might have reversed in the remote past. Most paleomagnetic research in the late 1950s included an examination of the wandering of the poles and continental drift. Although it was discovered that some rocks would reverse their magnetic field while cooling, it became apparent that most magnetized volcanic rocks preserved traces of the Earth's magnetic field at the time the rocks had cooled. In the absence of reliable methods for obtaining absolute ages for rocks, it was thought that reversals occurred approximately every million years.[1][2]

The next major advance in understanding reversals came when techniques for radiometric dating were developed in the 1950's. Allan Cox and Richard Doell, at the United States Geological Survey, wanted to know whether reversals occurred at regular intervals, and invited the geochronologist Brent Dalrymple to join their group. They produced the first magnetic-polarity time scale in 1959. As they accumulated data, they continued to refine this scale in competition with Don Tarling and Ian McDougall at the Australian National University. A group led by Neil Opdyke at the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory showed that the same pattern of reversals was recorded in sediments from deep-sea cores.[2]

During the 1950s and 1960s information about variations in the Earth's magnetic field was gathered largely by means of research vessels. But the complex routes of ocean cruises rendered the association of navigational data with magnetometer readings difficult. Only when data was plotted on a map did it become apparent that remarkably regular and continuous magnetic stripes appeared on the ocean floors.[1][2]

In 1963 Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews provided a simple explanation by combining the seafloor spreading theory of Harry Hess with the known time scale of reversals: if new sea floor is magnetized in the direction of the field, then it will change its polarity when the field reverses. Thus, sea floor spreading from a central ridge will produce magnetic stripes parallel to the ridge.[3] Canadian L. W. Morley independently proposed a similar explanation in January 1963, but his work was rejected by the scientific journals Nature and Journal of Geophysical Research, and remained unpublished until 1967, when it appeared in the literary magazine Saturday Review.[1] The Morley–Vine–Matthews hypothesis was the first key scientific test of the seafloor spreading theory of continental drift.[2]

Beginning in 1966, Lamont–Doherty Geological Observatory scientists found that the magnetic profiles across the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge were symmetrical and matched the pattern in the north Atlantic's Reykjanes ridges. The same magnetic anomalies were found over most of the world's oceans, which permitted estimates for when most of the oceanic crust had developed.[1][2]

Observing past fields

Geomagnetic polarity since the middle Jurassic. Dark areas denote periods where the polarity matches today's polarity, light areas denote periods where that polarity is reversed.

Past field reversals can be and have been recorded in the "frozen" ferromagnetic (or more accurately, ferrimagnetic) minerals of consolidated sedimentary deposits or cooled volcanic flows on land.

The past record of geomagnetic reversals was first noticed by observing the magnetic stripe "anomalies" on the ocean floor. Lawrence W. Morley, Frederick John Vine and Drummond Hoyle Matthews made the connection to seafloor spreading in the Morley-Vine-Matthews hypothesis[3][4] which soon led to the development of the theory of plate tectonics. The relatively constant rate at which the sea floor spreads results in substrate "stripes" from which past magnetic field polarity can be inferred from data gathered from towing a magnetometer along the sea floor.

Because no existing unsubducted sea floor (or sea floor thrust onto continental plates) is more than about 180 million years (Ma) old, other methods are necessary for detecting older reversals. Most sedimentary rocks incorporate tiny amounts of iron rich minerals, whose orientation is influenced by the ambient magnetic field at the time at which they formed. These rocks can preserve a record of the field if it is not later erased by chemical, physical or biological change.

Because the magnetic field is global, similar patterns of magnetic variations at different sites may be used to correlate age in different locations. In the past four decades much paleomagnetic data about seafloor ages (up to ~250 Ma) has been collected and is useful in estimating the age of geologic sections. Not an independent dating method, it depends on "absolute" age dating methods like radioisotopic systems to derive numeric ages. It has become especially useful to metamorphic and igneous geologists where index fossils are seldom available.

Geomagnetic polarity time scale

Through analysis of seafloor magnetic anomalies and dating of reversal sequences on land, paleomagnetists have been developing a Geomagnetic Polarity Time Scale (GPTS). The current time scale contains 184 polarity intervals in the last 83 million years.[5][6]

Changing frequency over time

The rate of reversals in the Earth's magnetic field has varied widely over time. 72 million years ago (Ma), the field reversed 5 times in a million years. In a 4-million-year period centered on 54 Ma, there were 10 reversals; at around 42 Ma, 17 reversals took place in the span of 3 million years. In a period of 3 million years centering on 24 Ma, 13 reversals occurred. No fewer than 51 reversals occurred in a 12-million-year period, centering on 15 million years ago. Two reversals occurred during a span of 50,000 years. These eras of frequent reversals have been counterbalanced by a few "superchrons" – long periods when no reversals took place.[7]


A superchron is a polarity interval lasting at least 10 million years. There are two well-established superchrons, the Cretaceous Normal and the Kiaman. A third candidate, the Moyero, is more controversial. The Jurassic Quiet Zone in ocean magnetic anomalies was once thought to represent a superchron, but is now attributed to other causes.

The Cretaceous Normal (also called the Cretaceous Superchron or C34) lasted for almost 40 million years, from about 120 to 83 million years ago, including stages of the Cretaceous period from the Aptian through the Santonian. The frequency of magnetic reversals steadily decreased prior to the period, reaching its low point (no reversals) during the period. Between the Cretaceous Normal and the present, the frequency has generally increased slowly.[8]

The Kiaman Reverse Superchron lasted from approximately the late Carboniferous to the late Permian, or for more than 50 million years, from around 312 to 262 million years ago.[8] The magnetic field had reversed polarity. The name "Kiaman" derives from the Australian village of Kiama, where some of the first geological evidence of the superchron was found in 1925.[9]

The Ordovician is suspected to host another superchron, called the Moyero Reverse Superchron, lasting more than 20 million years (485 to 463 million years ago) . But until now this possible superchron has only been found in the Moyero river section north of the polar circle in Siberia.[10] Moreover, the best data from elsewhere in the world do not show evidence for this superchron.[11]

Certain regions of ocean floor, older than 160 Ma, have low-amplitude magnetic anomalies that are hard to interpret. They are found off the east coast of North America, the northwest coast of Africa, and the western Pacific. They were once thought to represent a superchron called the Jurassic Quiet Zone, but magnetic anomalies are found on land during this period. The geomagnetic field is known to have low intensity between about 130 Ma and 170 Ma, and these sections of ocean floor are especially deep, so the signal is attenuated between the floor and the surface.[11]

Statistical properties of reversals

Several studies have analyzed the statistical properties of reversals in the hope of learning something about their underlying mechanism. The discriminating power of statistical tests is limited by the small number of polarity intervals. Nevertheless, some general features are well established. In particular, the pattern of reversals is random. There is no correlation between the lengths of polarity intervals.[12] There is no preference for either normal or reversed polarity, and no statistical difference between the distributions of these polarities. This lack of bias is also a robust prediction of dynamo theory.[8] Finally, as mentioned above, the rate of reversals changes over time.

The randomness of the reversals is inconsistent with periodicity, but several authors have claimed to find periodicity.[13] However, these results are probably artifacts of an analysis using sliding windows to determine reversal rates.[14]

Most statistical models of reversals have analyzed them in terms of a Poisson process or other kinds of renewal process. A Poisson process would have, on average, a constant reversal rate, so it is common to use a non-stationary Poisson process. However, compared to a Poisson process, there is a reduced probability of reversal for tens of thousands of years after a reversal. This could be due to an inhibition in the underlying mechanism, or it could just mean that some shorter polarity intervals have been missed.[8] A random reversal pattern with inhibition can be represented by a gamma process. In 2006, a team of physicists at the University of Calabria found that the reversals also conform to a Lévy distribution, which describes stochastic processes with long-ranging correlations between events in time.[15][16] The data are also consistent with a deterministic, but chaotic, process.[17]

Character of transitions


Most estimates for the duration of a polarity transition are between 1,000 and 10,000 years.[8] However, studies of lava flows on Steens Mountain, Oregon, indicate that the magnetic field could have shifted at a rate of up to 6 degrees per day about 15 million years ago.[18] This was initially met with skepticism from paleomagnetists. Even if changes occur that quickly in the core, the mantle, which is a semiconductor, is thought to act as a low-pass filter, removing variations with periods less than a few months. A variety of possible rock magnetic mechanisms were proposed that would lead to a false signal.[19] However, paleomagnetic studies of other sections from the same region (the Oregon Plateau flood basalts) give consistent results.[20][21] It appears that the reversed-to-normal polarity transition that marks the end of Chron C5Cr (16.7 million years ago) contains a series of reversals and excursions.[22] In addition, geologists Scott Bogue of Occidental College and Jonathan Glen of the US Geological Survey, sampling lava flows in Battle Mountain, Nevada, found evidence for a brief, several year long interval during a reversal when the field direction changed by over 50°. The reversal was dated to approximately 15 million years ago.[23][24]

Magnetic field

The magnetic field may not vanish completely, with many poles forming chaotically in different places during reversal, until it stabilizes again.[25][26]


NASA computer simulation using the model of Glatzmaier and Roberts. [27] The tubes represent magnetic field lines, blue when the field points towards the center and yellow when away. The rotation axis of the Earth is centered and vertical. The dense clusters of lines are within the Earth's core.[26]

The magnetic field of the Earth, and those planets that have magnetic fields are generated by dynamo action in which convection of molten iron in the planetary core generates electric currents which in turn give rise to magnetic fields.[8] Most scientists believe that reversals are an inherent aspect of this process. In simulations, it is observed that magnetic field lines can sometimes become tangled and disorganized through the chaotic motions of liquid metal in the Earth's core. For example, Gary Glatzmaier and collaborator Paul Roberts of UCLA have made a numerical model of the electromagnetic, fluid dynamical processes of Earth's interior. Their simulation reproduced key features of the magnetic field over more than 40,000 years of simulated time. Additionally, the computer-generated field reversed itself.[27][28] Global field reversals at irregular intervals have also been observed in the laboratory liquid metal experiment VKS2.[29]

In some simulations, this leads to an instability in which the magnetic field spontaneously flips over into the opposite orientation. This scenario is supported by observations of the solar magnetic field, which undergoes spontaneous reversals every 9–12 years. However, with the sun it is observed that the solar magnetic intensity greatly increases during a reversal, whereas reversals on Earth seem to occur during periods of low field strength.[30]

External triggers

Some scientists, such as Richard A. Muller, believe that geomagnetic reversals are not spontaneous processes but rather are triggered by external events that directly disrupt the flow in the Earth's core. Proposals include impact events[31][32] or internal events such as the arrival of continental slabs carried down into the mantle by the action of plate tectonics at subduction zones or the initiation of new mantle plumes from the core-mantle boundary.[33] Supporters of this theory hold that any of these events could lead to a large scale disruption of the dynamo, effectively turning off the geomagnetic field. Because the magnetic field is stable in either the present North-South orientation or a reversed orientation, they propose that when the field recovers from such a disruption it spontaneously chooses one state or the other, such that half the recoveries become reversals. However, the proposed mechanism does not appear to work in a quantitative model, and the evidence from stratigraphy for a correlation between reversals and impact events is weak. Most strikingly, there is no evidence for a reversal connected with the impact event that caused the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction.[34]

Future of the geomagnetic field

Variations in virtual axial dipole moment since the last reversal.

At present, the overall geomagnetic field is becoming weaker; the present strong deterioration corresponds to a 10–15% decline over the last 150 years and has accelerated in the past several years; geomagnetic intensity has declined almost continuously from a maximum 35% above the modern value achieved approximately 2,000 years ago. The rate of decrease and the current strength are within the normal range of variation, as shown by the record of past magnetic fields recorded in rocks (figure on right).

The nature of Earth's magnetic field is one of heteroscedastic fluctuation. An instantaneous measurement of it, or several measurements of it across the span of decades or centuries, is not sufficient to extrapolate an overall trend in the field strength. It has gone up and down in the past for no apparent reason. Also, noting the local intensity of the dipole field (or its fluctuation) is insufficient to characterize Earth's magnetic field as a whole, as it is not strictly a dipole field. The dipole component of Earth's field can diminish even while the total magnetic field remains the same or increases.

The Earth's magnetic north pole is drifting from northern Canada towards Siberia with a presently accelerating rate — 10 km per year at the beginning of the 20th century, up to 40 km per year in 2003,[25] and since then has only accelerated.[35] In the last decade magnetic north was shifting roughly one degree every five years.[36]

Effects on biosphere and human society


Not long after the first geomagnetic polarity time scales were produced, scientists began exploring the possibility that reversals could be linked to extinctions. Most such proposals rest on the assumption that the Earth's field has much lower intensity during reversals. Possibly the first such hypothesis was that high energy particles trapped in the Van Allen radiation belt could be liberated and bombard the Earth.[37][38] Detailed calculations confirm that, if the Earth's dipole field disappeared entirely (leaving the quadrupole and higher components), most of the atmosphere could be reached by high energy particles. However, the atmosphere would stop them. Instead there would be secondary radiation of 10
or 36
from collisions of cosmic rays with the atmosphere. There is evidence that this occurs both during secular variation[39][40] and during reversals.[41][42]

Another hypothesis by McCormac and Evans assumes that the Earth's field would disappear entirely during reversals.[43] They argue that the atmosphere of Mars may have been eroded away by the solar wind because it had no magnetic field to protect it. They predict that ions would be stripped away from Earth's atmosphere above 100 km. However, the evidence from paleointensity measurements is that the magnetic field does not disappear. Based on paleointensity data for the last 800,000 years,[44] the magnetopause is still estimated to be at about 3 Earth radii during the Brunhes-Matuyama reversal.[37] Even if the magnetic field disappeared, the solar wind may induce a sufficient magnetic field in the Earth's ionosphere to shield the surface from energetic particles.[45]

Tests of correlations between extinctions and reversals are difficult for a number of reasons. Larger animals are too scarce in the fossil record for good statistics, so paleontologists have analyzed microfossil extinctions. Even microfossil data can be unreliable if there are hiatuses in the fossil record. It can appear that the extinction occurs at the end of a polarity interval when the rest of that polarity interval was simply eroded away.[19] Statistical analysis shows no evidence for a correlation between reversals and extinctions.[46][37]

Hypotheses have also been advanced linking reversals to mass extinctions.[47] Many such arguments were based on an apparent periodicity in the rate of reversals; more careful analyses show that the reversal record is not periodic.[14] It may be, however, that the ends of superchrons have caused vigorous convection leading to widespread volcanism, and that the subsequent airborne ash caused extinctions.[48]


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