This question is linked to the following question, and has two parts.

  1. Mars interdicts approximately 40% of the radiation (per square meter) of the sun that Earth does. It has been claimed that Mars is unsustainable to human life, in part due to the particle radiation from the solar wind, such that a four year round trip to Mars is likely to cause cancer and/or permanent damage to the genome etc. Why does a pole reversal, which typically takes 1000 years, not have a period of radiation that is intolerable to life?

  2. Not only do migratory birds require the magnetic pole for direction, certain bacteria/algae do to rise and fall in the oceans correctly. If the pole reversal is not very quick, why do bird migrations not go askew in major numbers. (P.S. I am a little skeptical of the learned landscape proposal found in the linked question - is there evidence for a similar lateral paths taken by birds, year on year, to prove they are recognizing landscapes? Landscapes and features change very quickly over distance. And if so, does the magnetic direction sense really help the migration? Also, when it does reverse, if magnetic field is a key component to knowing direction, then won't that tend to drive them in the opposite direction, so even a quick final phase of a reversal may result in a large number of missing birds.) Also, why doesn't the food chain collapse when microbial creatures start to dive deeper when they used to head to the surface as a result of their magnetic compass?

  • $\begingroup$ Why are you mentioning Mars? It lost its magnetic field about 3.8 billion years ago. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Commented Aug 10, 2018 at 9:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Fred I think the OP supposes that Mars without a magnetic field is comparable to Earth in the middle of a pole reversal. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Commented Aug 10, 2018 at 10:15
  • $\begingroup$ My hypothesis is there migth increment a bit genetic pool. A bit of biological radiation. But just a guess. $\endgroup$
    – user12525
    Commented Aug 10, 2018 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ The reversal does not happen within the lifespan of a single bird so they would never notice. Even if it did they would likely reorient the same way we do when our visual field is flipped, the brain has placticity after all. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Aug 10, 2018 at 15:40

2 Answers 2


There are several factors to consider. The main one is the atmosphere (especially if you want to compare Mars with the Earth's during magnetic reversals). Earth's atmosphere is a formidable shield against solar wind and cosmic radiation. Each type of radiation have a different penetration, but in general the radiation dose associated to each type of radiation decays exponentially at lower elevations. For example for ionizing radiation the relationship is

$E(z)=E_0 \left(0.21 e^{-1.649 z} + 0.79 e^{-0.4528 z}\right)$

Where $E$ is the dose, $E_0$ is the dose ate sea level and z is the altitude (reference). The following figure illustrate how the radiation dose drop at lower elevations. But if you extend that curve to 100 km you will be able to grasp how much of the incoming radiation is filtered by the atmosphere.

enter image description here

Figure: Cosmic radiation exposure as a function of altitude, latitude 50° north, taken from the European Nuclear Society.

Therefore even in the absence of magnetic field, only a small fraction of the radiation would make it to the surface. And note that reversals only means a weakening of the magnetic field, not a complete disappearance. What can disappear is the dipole component of the magnetic field, not the magnetic field as a whole.

It is important to note also that the magnetic field is very important to prevent atmospheric erosion. Therefore, a permanent lack of magnetic field can generate the loss of the atmosphere (likely what happened to Mars). Conversely, Earth's magnetic field is one of the reasons we have a very thick atmosphere compared to Mars, and during the brief periods of magnetic field weakening (due to pole reversals), our thick atmosphere still provided a quite effective protection.

The fact that space radiation doesn't penetrate much can be observed in many different ways, one of them is noting that auroras (a.k.a. northern lights) usually never happen below 90 km of elevation.

Moreover, the reason why auroras happen only at high latitudes (i.e. near the poles), is due to the "geomagnetic latitude effect" that describe how radiations dose rates are minimal at the equator and maximal at the geomagnetic poles. Nevertheless, the atmosphere absorbs most of that extra radiation and life thrives in the arctic forest without any problems.

Also, the atmosphere would not be just a passive filter, it could create its own magnetic field as some studies suggest. Such studies argue that as long as we have atmosphere, the solar wind can induced a magnetic field around the Earth even in the absence of internal magnetic field (reference)

The other important point is: Would the paleontologic record of migratory birds populations and magnetic-dependant microbial life be good enough to detect a catastrophic population reduction on migratory birds and some microbial life that happened 780,000 years ago? I'm not an expert but I would be skeptical. In fact, 780,000 years seems to be enough time for the evolution whole new species and the rise of the migratory behaviour from scratch. More recent reversal events like the Laschamp event 41,000 years ago were much quicker than 1,000 years, and even so, I wonder how well we could reconstruct migratory birds populations that far back (considering that we have trouble reconstructing human populations back then).

Regarding migratory birds, you say that after the reversal the birds would migrate in the wrong direction. And that is quite questionable. In the lack of any point of reference, using an improvised compass to know the north-south direction is easy, but figuring out which side is north and which is south is much more difficult. Therefore, maybe birds use other means to figure that out which side of their compasses is north, means that don't depend on the magnetic field. For example, the side at which sunrise happen or something like that.

Finally, microbes evolve and adapt very quickly, so even assuming that some (or many) of them would die during reversals, I'm sure others would take their place. At the end the ocean microbiota is nutrient-limited, and all the nutrients not used by the dying species will be used by other species that can thrive with a weaker magnetic field. So I wouldn't be so quick to think that such event would lead to a food chain collapse.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I remember the micro-organisms coming in u/g lectures. A sizeable minority 'go the wrong way' in a magnetic field (recessive gene would be my guess, or frequent mutation). Perhaps as many as 10%. Therefore a significant population will survive - and of course a micro-organism lifespan is very very tiny compared to a polar reversal - even evolution would be able to keep up. As for birds - magnetic fields are only one sense that they use. For example many can use stars to navigate. $\endgroup$
    – winwaed
    Commented Aug 10, 2018 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ When you say "radiation", what exactly do you mean? Earth's magnetic field affects charged particles, like electrons and protons and stuff coming from the sun. Another form of radiation is EM radiation, like UV light. That's different. $\endgroup$
    – Gimelist
    Commented Aug 11, 2018 at 6:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Gimelist when it comes to radiation that can produce mutations, it encompasses all of that, the most common on earth are neutrons, muons, protons, pions, electrons and high energy photons. In most cases what affect life on the surface are nor the particles/EM radiation coming directly from space but the byproducts of a cascade of collisions in the atmosphere. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2018 at 14:26

National Geographic published an article about this in January 2018 - No, We're Not All Doomed by Earth's Magnetic Field Flip.

Yes, the flipping of the magnetic poles does take a long time - thousands of years. But during the change, the Earth's magnetic field does not cease to exist & the magnetic poles do not disappear. They slowly migrate.

For argument sake, the north magnetic pole might be centered in Canada, then slowly move to the US, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile and then be located over Antarctica. The south magnetic pole will always be in a position opposite to the location of the north magnetic pole, wherever it may be.

The Earth will have a magnetic field but,

Earth’s magnetic field could get weaker—but its strength is already quite variable, so that’s not necessarily unusual, and there’s no indication it will vanish entirely, according to NASA. Why? Because it never has.

However, if the magnetic field gets substantially weaker and stays that way for an appreciable amount of time Earth will be less protected from the oodles of high-energy particles that are constantly flying around in space. This means that everything on the planet will be exposed to higher levels of radiation, which over time could produce an increase in diseases like cancer.

During the prolonged change,

animals that use Earth’s magnetic field for navigation—including birds, salmon, and sea turtles—could get lost during their routine journeys. Eventually they will sort this out, and all other things being equal, life will go on. Lots of doomsday prophets have tried to equate geomagnetic flips with mass extinctions, but the data just aren’t there.


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