The Earth magnetic field

Earth’s magnetic field, also known as the geomagnetic field, is the magnetic field that extends from the Earth’s interior to where it meets the solar wind, a stream of charged particles emanating from the Sun. Its magnitude at the Earth’s surface ranges from 25 to 65 microteslas (0.25 to 0.65 gauss). Roughly speaking it is the field of a magnetic dipole currently tilted at an angle of about 10 degrees with respect to Earth’s rotational axis, as if there were a bar magnet placed at that angle at the center of the Earth. Unlike a bar magnet, however, Earth’s magnetic field changes over time because it is generated by a geodynamo (in Earth’s case, the motion of molten iron alloys in its outer core).

The North and South magnetic poles wander widely, but sufficiently slowly for ordinary compasses to remain useful for navigation. However, at irregular intervals averaging several hundred thousand years, the Earth’s field reverses and the North and South Magnetic Poles relatively abruptly switch places. These reversals of the geomagnetic poles leave a record in rocks that are of value to paleomagnetists in calculating geomagnetic fields in the past. Such information in turn is helpful in studying the motions of continents and ocean floors in the process of plate tectonics. The magnetosphere is the region above the ionosphere and extends several tens of thousands of kilometers into space, protecting the Earth from the charged particles of the solar wind and cosmic rays that would otherwise strip away the upper atmosphere, including the ozone layer that protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation.

Earth’s magnetic field serves to deflect most of the solar wind, whose charged particles would otherwise strip away the ozone layer that protects the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation. One stripping mechanism is for gas to be caught in bubbles of magnetic field, which are ripped off by solar winds. Calculations of the loss of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere of Mars, resulting from scavenging of ions by the solar wind, indicate that the dissipation of the magnetic field of Mars caused a near-total loss of its atmosphere.

The study of past magnetic field of the Earth is known as paleomagnetism. The polarity of the Earth’s magnetic field is recorded in igneous rocks, and reversals of the field are thus detectable as “stripes” centered on mid-ocean ridges where the sea floor is spreading, while the stability of the geomagnetic poles between reversals has allowed paleomagnetists to track the past motion of continents. Reversals also provide the basis for magnetostratigraphy, a way of dating rocks and sediments. The field also magnetizes the crust, and magnetic anomalies can be used to search for deposits of metal ores.