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Vol. 18, No. 5, 2019
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alanna mitchell's

reviewed by


Sheilla Jones is an award-winning Canadian journalist with an advanced degree in theoretical physics. She is a Senior Fellow of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, where she is leading the Treaty Annuity/Individual Empowerment Initiative. For more of Sheilla visit her website at:


Earth's changing magnetic fields impact all aspects of life -- and there's nothing we can do about it

Physical reality at the level of atoms is really very weird. Most of us happily walk around without any concern that the atoms that make up the molecules of the cells of our bodies collectively contain about the same amount of energy as 1,000 hydrogen bombs.

Fortunately, all that energy is safely trapped by powerful nuclear bonds, but it is still there.

We don’t bother much about the billions of microscopic living things (bacteria) inhabiting our mouths. It does nothing to inhibit us romantics from kissing each other with fervour and delight.

Our obliviousness to invisible physical realities also applies to the Earth’s magnetic fields. They are shifting and moving all around us, all the time, but unless we’re operating navigational systems (as pilots or as birds) or enjoying a spectacular display of the aurora borealis, we don’t pay much attention.

Award-winning Toronto-based science writer Alanna Mitchell wants you to wake up to the fact that the planet’s magnetic fields are heading for a major disruption that could routinely disable electricity grids, interfere with communications and GPS satellites and turn your iPads and smartphones into useless rare-metal devices. Are you paying attention now?

In The Spinning Magnet: The Force That Created the Modern World — and Could Destroy It, Mitchell warns that:

the Earth’s magnetic fields are steadily weakening, which reduces the biosphere’s protection from destructive solar and galactic radiation. It is a very real threat, she says, to the "vast cyber-electric cocoon we have encased ourselves in."

Mitchell explains in clear, crisp prose how the planet’s magnetic fields are generated by the swirling liquid metal at the Earth’s core, which induces electrical currents that are accompanied by magnetic fields. It is those fields that fend off high-velocity solar winds and radiation.

Our planet, she says,

has a complicated relationship with the sun. Life on Earth could not survive without the energy the sun sends our way, but every so often, it hurls magnetic superstorms at the Earth that are capable of penetrating the magnetic fields.

It happened in 1859, only 30 years or so after scientists figured out that moving electricity generates magnetic fields and that moving magnetic fields generate electricity. The superstorm roiled Earth’s magnetic fields, which generated rampaging electrical currents seeking the easiest path to flow. It turned out that the grounded, highly conductive wiring of the world’s first large-scale technological network — telegraph lines — was ideal.

Surges through the wires overwhelmed telegraph systems in North America, Europe, India and Australia. The disturbance lasted 11 days.

Mitchell describes the impact of a more recent solar superstorm that hit in October 2003, causing the Federal Aviation Administration to issue its first-ever radiation alert. Airline flights were redirected away from highly charged polar routes and pilots could not rely on the disabled GPS satellites for landing guidance. Many power grids around the world were shut down by engineers to protect them from electrical surges. Astronauts in the International Space Station hunkered down under extra layers of radiation shields to wait out the deadly storm. Just about any service or equipment using geomagnetic devices failed.

Insurance-company actuaries are now struggling with how to build into their policies the risk of future magnetic meltdowns and the billions of dollars in damages they will cause.

Mitchell says the effects of the superstorm are a taste of what life will be like when the Earth’s weakening electromagnetic fields are no longer able to fend off the sun’s normal streams of radiation and solar winds. The greatest danger is when the planet’s magnetic poles reverse.

This reversal of polarity has happened numerous times during Earth’s geological history. The last time was 780,000 years ago, so no one was around to see what actually happened.

Paleontologists and geophysicists have some idea. They have identified a high correlation between pole reversals and the timing of species extinctions, perhaps because some of the many species that navigate based on magnetic poles for breeding and migration could not adapt quickly enough to the change.

Mitchell, author of 2010’s Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, packs a lot of science into her latest book, but does so in generally digestible bites, incorporating her personal experience meeting with and interviewing the scientists leading the quest to understand the magnetic fields, who are struggling to predict what will happen next.

She covers quite a bit of the history of the science of electromagnetism in The Spinning Magnet, but the strength of the book is the last section. There, Mitchell deals with the threat to our modern society from our dependency on the invisible magnet fields that dance to protect us from electromagnetic disaster.

Not surprisingly, Mitchell ends on a depressing note. There are, she says, "mysterious goings-on under the surface of this spinning magnet we live on" that are causing the weakening of the Earth’s protective fields. And there is not a single thing any of us can do about it.



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