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Name: Scott
Status: Educator
Grade: 9-12
Location: MA
Country: United States
Date: December 2006

How necessary is our magnetic field really for protecting our atmosphere? Would we really lose our atmosphere if we lost our magnetic field like in that movie The Core?


The magnetic field is not necessary for preventing the atmosphere from leaving the Earth; gravity holds the atmosphere, just as it holds us, to the Earth.

However, the Earth's magnetic field is very important to the atmosphere in another way. It shields the Earth from most of the charged particles and radiation from the Sun, although in severe solar storm conditions there is not enough shielding to entirely protect satellites, some communication equipment on Earth, and electric power grid systems. The magnetic field also directs the streams of particles from the Sun into magnetic field lines, resulting in the aurora, as well as enhancement or disturbance of communication signals beamed through the atmosphere.

David R. Cook
Climate Research Section
Environmental Science Division
Argonne National Laboratory

Dear Scott:

Our atmosphere is held close by Earth's gravity. Loss of the magnetic field would not affect gravity and not affect the atmosphere.

Having said that, a collapse of the magnetic field is possible and has happened many times in the past. In events known as geomagnetic reversals, the field weakens, disappears and comes back but with the north and south magnetic poles switched. In other words, the only long term effect would be that your compass would now point south. Geomagnetic reversals were instrumental in convincing the Geophysical community of the reality of continental drift.

While the field weakens and rebuilds in a reversal, Earth's surface is exposed to more cosmic rays and high energy particles from the Sun and space. But to my knowledge, there are no extinctions or other notable events in the fossil record linked to geomagnetic reversals so the lasting effects seem to be minor.

Bob Avakian
Oklahoma State University-Okmulgee

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