The sun's magnetic field shifted today, indicating that the solar maximum will be at its most intense over the next few months. A shift in the sun's polarity is not an unexpected event during a solar maximum, which has occurred every eleven years since the sunspot cycle was discovered.
The sun's magnetic north pole is now in its southern hemisphere. It was in the northern hemisphere just a few weeks ago.
The poles will remain in their current position until 2012, when they will reverse again.
Unlike the earth, the sun's magnetic field shifts every eleven years with great regularity. Earth's magnetic field also shifts, but far less frequently. In the past, our planet's magnetic field has shifted as frequently as every 5,000 years, and there have been periods as long as 50 million years between shifts.
The last time the earth's magnetic field shifted was 740,000 years ago, and some scientists believe that it is overdue for another shift.
The internet is filled with scary stories about a change in the polarity of earth's magnetic field being the cause of various sorts of catastrophe. In general, these stories identify recent catastrophes and claim that they were caused by a "pole shift."
However, there is no scientific evidence that there is any correlation between shift's in the earth's magnetic field, which can be measured with fair precision, and climactic or geological disasters. Actual shifts in earth's magnetic field are far more rare than the catastrophe salesmen generally claim.
In fact, the effect of this relatively rare event is unknown, but is not identified as threatening to human survival. During the period of flux, which could last for years as the magnetic field reconstructs itself, navigation by compass would be problematic and radio communications would be erratic. It is also possible that more of the solar wind would reach earth's surface while the field was in confusion.
To read NASA's story about the sun's magnetic field reversal, click here
For scientific information about magnetic field shifts and how they are measured, click here.
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