Popular news has several articles linking back to the news article in Nature Earth’s magnetic field is acting up and geologists don’t know why which discusses the need for an early update to the World Geomagnetic Model.

However my question is about one line found in the Independent's Planet’s erratic magnetic field forces emergency update to global navigation system

The shift they observed was so large it was on the verge of exceeding the acceptable limit for navigation errors.

To account for this, scientists at the British Geological Survey and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are issuing an unprecedented emergency update to the model.

They have fed in the latest data, including an unexpected geomagnetic pulse that took place beneath South America in 2016, to ensure the system is more accurate.

Question: What is the nature, and underlying cause of the "unexpected geomagnetic pulse that took place beneath South America in 2016"?

AKA geomagnetic jerk.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ A way to develop an answer to this question would be to locate the "unprecedented emergency update" and see what it says. The NOAA website is currently down due to the dysfunction in the US government, but you can read the BGS version. $\endgroup$
    – rob
    Jan 14 '19 at 6:27

The "geomagnetic pulse" here refers to a series of academic works studying the Earth's core such as this open access article (other related articles require scientific journal subscriptions to read).

Geomagnetic pulses have been associated with "geomagnetic jerks". A jerk was reported (yay for open access again) to have occurred in 2014, the 2016 pulse under South America is believed to be related to this, both events having been measured and identified after the fact.

The magnetic field is always changing - a "pulse" is a quicker-than-normal (few year) acceleration of magnetic field change in time, in a region at the surface of the Earth's outer core (magnetic field is generated within the core).

A "jerk" is a quick change (few months) of the rate at which magnetic field changes at Earth's surface, making something like a 'V' shape if you plot the field against time at a given location.

The idea is that a pulse occurs at the core, and jerks are an effect seen at the surface just before and after the peak of the pulse, as the field change ramps up and down. The underlying cause of this is not known, and we only identify them after they've occurred, so they're currently unpredictable. That said this behaviour is apparently part of the core's repertoire, and pulses and jerks have been observed before.

  • $\begingroup$ "The underlying cause of this is not known..." wow! Thanks for the great answer! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jan 24 '19 at 23:10
  • $\begingroup$ Haha, sometimes the best answer is we have no answer? :-p $\endgroup$ Jan 25 '19 at 12:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yep that's the short answer! The longer answers get more nuanced. We can use measured changes of the magnetic field to infer how the flow at the surface of Earth's outer core could have changed in order to produce those magnetic field changes -- so we have an idea literally of what caused such field changes, but not why it behaved that specific way, and not any other way, at that time, in that place. $\endgroup$
    – WJB
    Jan 25 '19 at 15:54
  • $\begingroup$ I've just added an answer citing the new paper in Nature Geoscience. You may find further citable information in it. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 23 '19 at 2:51

Too long to post as a comment:

Just published: Nature Geoscience Geomagnetic jerks and rapid hydromagnetic waves focusing at Earth’s core surface

Scrolling to the bottom of the page there are links to several short videos


Geomagnetic jerks are abrupt changes in the second time derivative—the secular acceleration—of Earth’s magnetic field that punctuate ground observatory records. As their dynamical origin has not yet been established, they represent a major obstacle to the prediction of geomagnetic field behaviour for years to decades ahead. Recent jerks have been linked to short-lived, temporally alternating and equatorially localized pulses of secular acceleration observed in satellite data, associated with rapidly alternating flows at Earth’s core surface. Here we show that these signatures can be reproduced in numerical simulations of the geodynamo that realistically account for the interaction between slow core convection and rapid hydromagnetic waves. In these simulations, jerks are caused by the arrival of localized Alfvén wave packets radiated from sudden buoyancy releases inside the core. As they reach the core surface, the waves focus their energy towards the equatorial plane and along lines of strong magnetic flux, creating sharp interannual changes in core flow and producing geomagnetic jerks through the induced variations in magnetic field acceleration. The ability to numerically reproduce jerks offers a new way to probe the physical properties of Earth’s deep interior.

Screen Shot from video #1, South America, circa 2016

Screen Shot from video #1 Nature Geoscience  Geomagnetic jerks and rapid hydromagnetic waves focusing at Earth’s core surface

Screen Shot from video #2

Screen Shot from video #2 Nature Geoscience  Geomagnetic jerks and rapid hydromagnetic waves focusing at Earth’s core surface


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