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Pole Flip on the Sun

There's evidence that the Earth's magnetic poles are about to flip. What's interesting is this: it's already happened on the Sun. Like the Earth, it has a north and south pole. But for nearly a month, beginning in March 2000, the Sun's south magnetic pole faded, and a north pole emerged to take its place, so the Sun had two north poles. By May 2000, the south pole was back to its usual position. Then in 2001, the solar magnetic field flipped and the poles swapped positions. They've stayed at way ever since.

"It sounds impossible, but it's true," says space physicist Pete Riley. "In fact, it's a fairly normal side-effect of the solar cycle." Strange events like this happen to the Sun every 11 years around solar maximum. Physicists aren't sure how this pole shift will affect the Earth. Riley says, "The Sun's magnetic field permeates the entire solar system."

The "current sheet" is the surface where the polarity of the Sun's magnetic field changes from plus (north) to minus (south). "We call it the 'current sheet,'" says Riley, "because an electrical current flows there..."The sheet extends from the Sun past the orbit of Pluto." Usually it circles the Sun's equator in an even circle, but during the pole switch it changed shape and became irregular. This could be a problem because the current sheet acts as a barrier to cosmic rays hitting the Earth.

The current sheet also helps prevent space storms, which can cause electronics on satellites to short circuit and power grids on Earth to fail. They can also be dangerous to astronauts.

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