Will 2012 be like 2012?

It’s getting harder for the Post Office to deliver mail to Santa Claus. Why? Because the Earth’s north magnetic pole that pilots use for reference in navigation is on the move.

I’m sure many of you remember elementary school science class when you placed a magnet under a piece of paper and sprinkled iron filings on the paper to see the effects of a magnetic field. Think of the Earth as a bigger version of that. The planet is essentially a giant molten ball of magma and a solid inner core consisting largely of iron. An appropriate analogy would that of an egg where the yolk is the inner core while the egg white is the molten core and on top of that is a thin crust, like an eggshell, where we tiny humans run around with misplaced degree of self-importance. The inner core floats independently from the rest of the planet and rotates at its own speed.

It’s this inner core that generates the Earth’s magnetic field and this field helps pilots of planes and ships determine where they are and if they’re on the correct course for their destination.

But in the last few years, the north magnetic pole has begun moving at an ever increasing rate towards Siberia.

Earth's Core (Courtesy NASA)

It’s moving by about 40 miles annually. This is causing all manner of problems. Runways at airports are numbered in accordance to their alignment with magnetic north. But some airports in Florida have had to renumber their runways as a result of the drift of the magnetic pole in addition to altering existing charts and updating on board computers. Fortunately, most professional pilots rely on more sophisticated means of navigation these days such as GPS.

Several species of migratory birds and some aquatic animals are known to use the magnetic field to navigate as well. This has led to speculation of correlation with the rash of recent bird deaths and fish kills. And European birds who migrated at the wrong time of the year and also for Kazakhstani flamingos, who normally migrate to Iran, that inexplicably did a 180 degree migration to Siberia.

That the magnetic pole moves is nothing new. Occasionally the magnetic poles ‘flip’ as has been discovered in rock samples by scientists known as paleomagnetists who study reversal magnetostratigraphy. Pole reversal happens on average about every 300,000 years, though not on any sort of regular schedule. The last time it happened was 780,000 years ago. Are we overdue for a flip? No one knows for certain, but it does seem possible.

A flip can take thousands of years to occur, so it could be happening now. A flip or reversal can break the magnetic pole into segments meaning there could be multiple poles at any place on earth, say Florida, Siberia, and Africa simultaneously. Problematic if you’re a flamingo.

But can this inner core turbulence be having a seismological effect? The possibility cannot be dismissed. Science simply does not have enough evidence or historical data to make a determination as to what changes in the inner core could be having on the tectonic plates above. But the increase in seismic activity, beginning in Sumatra in 2004, and the increase in the drift of the magnetic pole, seems awfully coincidental. These quakes have even decreased the length of a day by changing the mass distribution of the Earth (It’s in microseconds, so don’t worry about changing your clocks) much like a figure skater increases the velocity of her spin by drawing her arms inward. When the mass of the Earth becomes more compact, it spins faster.

Many of the largest, most destructive quakes have happened within recent memory. The M8.5 Sumatra quake, the M9.0 Japan quake, the M7.0 Haiti quake, the M8.8 Chilean quake, etc. A quake on one fault line can foreshadow an event elsewhere on the opposite side of the plate as the plates react to each other’s movement. Case in point: Jan 12, 2010 Haiti’s quake occurred on the Caribbean Plate followed a month later by the Chilean quake on the Nazca Plate. In February of this year, the M6.3 Christchurch quake occurred on the Pacific Plate followed by the Tōhoku (Sendai) quake further up the Pacific Plate and just yesterday, a M5.3 quake back in Santiago, Chile. This clockwise precession suggests that the repositioning of these plates could signal a long overdue quake on the North American west coast. USGS scientists don’t think so; I tend to agree, since the Sendai quake appears to have released pressure on the Pacific Plate by moving northern Japan eight feet further east under the Pacific Plate.

Timeline of Recent Quakes

What if we have a big California quake? Or a large event of plate movement in the Cascadia Subduction Zone? The last large instance in that area occurred on January 26, 1700, at about 9PM Pacific (yes, it was possible to measure it that precisely). It would seem prudent, in light of what’s happening at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear facility, to re-examine the wisdom of having two nuclear plants located near the San Andreas fault; both near the shore. It would also seem wise to re-examine the Republican intent to cut funding for Tsunami warning efforts.

Diablo Canyon Plant near San Luis Obispo

San Onofre Plant near San Diego

The Internet is replete with doomsayers echoing the plot of Hollywood disaster movies and claiming the Mayan calendar is a harbinger of the end of the world. However, the world exists on a much grander time scale than humanity. And the Mayans probably just got tired of making calendars so far in advance. What’s happening to the planet is likely nothing unusual. We just haven’t been around long enough to get used to it.

It is more likely that increased seismic activity and the accelerating shift in the magnetic poles are indicative of changes taking place in the Earth’s core rather than the shift in the magnetic pole causing the seismic activity. On the plus side, the magnetic field will still protect us from interstellar radiation and we might even get to enjoy the Aurora Borealis in Florida. But I guess we’ll have to give a GPS unit to Santa for Christmas.


About Mr. Universe

Mr. Universe is a musician/songwriter and an ex-patriot of the south. He currently lives and teaches at a University in the Pacific Northwest. He is a long distance hiker who has hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. He is also an author and woodworker. An outspoken political voice, he takes a decidedly liberal stance in politics.
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24 Responses to Will 2012 be like 2012?

  1. shortchain says:

    I don’t have much belief in any of these disaster predictions. Let’s face it, the Maya didn’t have any better direct line to the universe or the powers that make it go than any other bunch of ancient people. This isn’t a criticism — they were, I am sure, fine people by the standards of their epoch. We can’t blame them for a little human sacrifice. It was all the rage in those days.

    The scientists of today making predictions of pole reversals are falling into the same logical fallacy as the gambler who, having lost on red ten times in a row, doubles his bet under the theory that “black is due”. Of course, it’s a safe bet to predict that there will be a disaster — because there always will be, and people will naturally remember that rather than the hundred absences of disasters that came before.

    But I do have to admit that I like saying “subduction zones” over and over aloud.

  2. Monotreme says:

    I had a friend, academic type so he should’ve known better, who went to Vegas to play video poker every chance he got.

    He used to joke about “odds pressure”. At least, I think he was joking. Hmm.

  3. MoldyMe says:

    Ah, but Mr U, what about the recent scientific comments (not on this site) relating to the increase in catastrophic earthquakes due to the melting of global ice and the “springing” back of the crust as a result of the lessened pressure on the crust? Sorry, I’m not in a place where I can site the source from which I got it, but, to a layman like me, it makes more sense than the increase in the severity of earthquakes being a result of moving magnetic fields. I don’t dispute that the magnetic north is moving south, mind you, or that we may be due for a flip in location.

  4. Brian says:

    Mono,

    Penny slots are the way to go. Just sit down, get free drinks brought to you, and spend like $5 an hour.

  5. Mr. Universe says:

    @MoldyMe

    Yes I’ve heard a couple of other unsubstantiated theories. One says the weight of the water behind the super dam the Chinese are building is putting pressure on the planet’s core. Another one says there is a cosmic alignment going on involving some massive yet undiscovered gas giant in the Kieper Belt (that one has been dismissed, I believe).

    @Brian

    That just seems like a poor ROI of one’s time. I win regularly at Limit Hold ’em but never enough to justify sitting at the table for that long waiting for a hand worth playing. I get bored.

  6. filistro says:

    Seems like an appropriate place to post this… 🙂

  7. mclever says:

    Mr. Universe,

    Blackjack at a dollar table with decent rules that aren’t too favorable to the house can be a fun way to spend an afternoon with friends (or friendly strangers). If you know what you’re doing, you can stretch $20 a pretty long ways and maybe even come out ahead. For the math-geeky among us, you can play all sorts of odds calculation games based on the cards played (and the pit bosses don’t really care if you count cards at the low-limit table, as long as you’re not obvious about it). As a bonus, the girl in the short-short skirt comes by with free drinks every 3o minutes or so. (That alone might be worth the $20 to some guys.)

    Of course, with the Sahara closing, I’m not sure where you can find anything less than a $10 table on the strip these days… *sigh*

    Oh, with regard to pole-shifting and mega-quake disasters, if a really bad quake hit Los Angeles, would they feel it in Vegas?

  8. mclever says:

    @filistro

    Love the cartoon!

  9. mclever,
    Believe it or not, the Bellagio has two $5 tables. They’re usually full, but they’re there. One’s on the end closest to the registration desks, and I think the other’s on the end closest to the shops that lead in the direction of Caesars.

    And, yes, they’ve felt big SoCal quakes in Vegas.

  10. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    Bummer about the Sahara. Last of the dinosaurs. Except for the cocktail waitresses costumes, the rest of the casinos all look the same.

    I was in Vegas a couple years back for poker tournament and stopped in their House of Lords restaurant. Muzak was nothing but Frank, Sammy, Dean and Tony.

    Time warped back to the old days!

  11. mclever says:

    @Michael

    The first time I visited Vegas, it was pretty easy to get a spot at a $5 table on the strip, and $3 and $1 tables with decent rules were readily found away from the big-money hotels. Now, especially on weekends, it’s nearly impossible to find anything less than $10, the two tables at the Bellagio notwithstanding. I get bored waiting around for a seat at the lone $5 table to open up, and I’m too cheap to spend $10 a hand. It goes too fast and isn’t as much fun for someone as risk averse as I am.

    Oh well. I really shouldn’t be dwelling on Vegas on a thread about the movement of the North Pole which is actually pretty damn fascinating. I’ve been boggled by the idea of the north and south poles flipping ever since I first heard about the possibility in science class some years ago. Moving 40 MILES a year is incredible!

    Could changes in the core really be what’s contributing to the increased seismic activity on the crust? Intuitively it makes sense, but so do several other ideas that have been bandied about (such as the reduction in the weight of polar ice due to melting causing a subtle shift in the pressure on the plates). From this layman’s perspective, I would suspect that a variety of causes and variables are all contributing in various degrees, and there isn’t any one single sole cause. But that doesn’t really help us know what to do about it.

    By the way, I found this article to be yet another of those well-written, reasonable and informative articles that the contributors to this site are so consistently producing. If my light-hearted posts about gambling seemed to be dismissing the main thrust of the article, that’s just me deflecting to avoid dealing with the scary notion that the recent large quakes are just the beginning of a pattern.

    A big M8 quake hitting SoCal is really very frightening. Thanks to the situation in Japan, I’m now unhappily aware that a quake hitting near major nuclear plants is even more frightening. I would hope that those operating the plants near San Diego and San Luis Obispo are currently updating their disaster plans to take into account what happens if they lose power or if the quake threatens to breech the containment vessels. Do they have a quick response ready? Are they prepared to simply flood the reactors with seawater at the first sign of serious trouble? Ruining the reactors seems far better than risking significant radioactive exposure to the 22 million people who live south of the Tehachapi Mountains (i.e. the ten southernmost counties of California). Or worse, creating a cloud of radioactivity that drifts slowly across the continental United States. Nope, not a happy thought at all…

  12. Mr. Universe says:

    Awww man! Not the Sahara. You’d think the city would want to preserve that as an historical monument to the Rat Pack days. I re-watched ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ the other night. The strip just won’t be the same. Oh well, if 2012 comes to pass Sin City will probably just get sucked down to hell anyway.

    I saw Barbara Boxer grilling a guy from the NRC on the news last night. She asked the guy if he knew how many people lived within a 50 mile radius of San Onofro (he didn’t). 7.4 million. She then asked him what he thought the likelihood of evacuating or re-locating all those folks was. He didn’t have an answer.

  13. Mr. Universe says:

    Oh yeah, Erin Go Braugh!

    Happy Saint Patty’s everybody.

  14. Number Seven says:

    And now we are at war in Libya, woo hoo.

    WTG Obama, you are so much different then Bush.

    The two party system is like the opposite sides of a wooden nickel.

  15. Mr. Universe says:

    So I just have to share this with y’all.

    I was wrestling with a title for this article (Michael’s is the one that we went with BTW) and filistro suggested I go with some variation on Matthew 24:7 from the New Testament;

    For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places…

    Seemed appropriate given the circumstances in the world today and Michael suggested;

    Matthew Gone Wild! 24-7! All Matthew, all the time!

    We passed on it and went with the Hollywood analogy.

  16. The Matthew angle didn’t make as good a title, though I really had fun with the 24:7 thing. It would have made a better lead paragraph though (or, as they say in the biz, “lede graf”…it’s like 1337sp33k for journalists).

  17. Mr. Universe says:

    I forgot to mention that I never saw this movie. But I think I get the ‘end of the world’ message.

  18. filistro says:

    And if all that isn’t enough… tomorrow we’ve got a Bad Moon rising…

  19. mclever says:

    Bad moon?

    Clear night, nice weather. Looks like it should be a good supermoon to me! 🙂

  20. And if all that isn’t enough… tomorrow we’ve got a Bad Moon rising…

    That is, assuming you put any Creedence into such things…

  21. filistro says:

    That is, assuming you put any Creedence into such things…

    There’s trouble on the way. I’m trying to start a revival 🙂

  22. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    Well, my lake has real clearwater to catch that moon’s reflection!

  23. Max aka Birdpilot says:

    And down the hall from my living room, there’s a bathroom on the right!

  24. drfunguy says:

    I will resist the urge to respond with more Fogarty quotes, though I’m lookin out my back door presently.
    Re. the magnetic fluxes, I don’t think that alien intervent can be ruled out; ever read Greg Bear’s “Forge of God”?
    Well worth while.

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