A geomagnetic excursion, like a geomagnetic reversal, is a significant change in the Earth's magnetic field. Unlike reversals however, an excursion does not permanently change the large-scale orientation of the field, but rather represents a dramatic, typically short-lived decrease in field intensity, with a variation in pole orientation of up to 45 degrees from the previous position. These events, which typically last a few thousand to a few tens of thousands of years, often involve declines in field strength to between 0 and 20% of normal. Excursions, unlike reversals, are generally not recorded across the entire globe. This is partially due to them not being recorded well within the sedimentary record, but also because they likely do not extend through the entire geomagnetic field. One of the first excursions to be studied was the Laschamp event, dated at around 40,000 years ago. Since this event has also been seen in sites across the globe, it is suggested as one of the few examples of a truly global excursion.
Scientific opinion is divided on what caused geomagnetic excursions. The dominant theory is that they are an inherent aspect of the dynamo processes that maintain the Earth's magnetic field. In computer simulations, it is observed that magnetic field lines can sometimes become tangled and disorganized through the chaotic motions of liquid metal in the Earth's core. In such cases, this spontaneous disorganization can cause decreases in the magnetic field as perceived at the Earth's surface. In truth, under this scenario, the Earth's magnetic field intensity does not significantly change in the core itself, but rather energy is transferred from a dipole configuration to higher order multipole moments which decay more rapidly with the distance from the Earth's core, so that the expression of such a magnetic field at the surface of the Earth would be considerably less, even without significant changes in the strength of the deep field. This scenario is supported by observed tangling and spontaneous disorganizations in the solar magnetic field. However, this process in the sun invariabily leads to a reversal of the solar magnetic field (see: solar cycle), and has never been observed such that the field would recover without large scale changes in field orientation.
The work of David Gubbins suggests that excursions occur when the magnetic field is reversed only within the liquid outer core; reversals occur when the inner core is also affected. This fits well with observations of events within the current chron of reversals taking 3–7000 years to complete, while excursions typically last 500–3000 years. However, this timescale does not hold true for all events, and the need for separate generation of fields has been contested, since the changes can be spontaneously generated in mathematical models.
A minority opinion, held by such figures as Richard A. Muller, is that geomagnetic excursions are not a spontaneous processes but rather triggered by external events which directly disrupt the flow in the Earth's core. Such processes may include the arrival of continental slabs carried down into the mantle by the action of plate tectonics at subduction zones, the initiation of new mantle plumes from the core-mantle boundary, and possibly mantle-core shear forces and displacements resulting from very large impact events. Supporters of this theory hold that any of these events lead to a large scale disruption of the dynamo, effectively turning off the geomagnetic field for a period of time necessary for it to recover.
Except for recent periods of the geologic past, it is not well known how frequently geomagnetic excursions occur. Unlike geomagnetic reversals, which are easily detected by the change in field direction, the relatively short-lived excursions can be easily overlooked in long duration, coarsely resolved, records of past geomagnetic field intensity. Present knowledge suggests that they are around ten times more abundant than reversals, with up to 12 excursions documented within the current reversal period Brunhes–Matuyama reversal.
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Since no excursions have been recorded within human history, it is unknown precisely what effects one would have. However, it is likely that nothing serious would occur, as the human species has certainly lived through at least one such event; Homo erectus and possibly Homo heidelbergensis lived through the Matuyama reversal with no known ill effect, and excursions are shorter lived and do not result in permanent changes to the magnetic field. The major hazard to modern society is likely to be similar to those associated with geomagnetic storms, where satellites and power supplies may be damaged, although compass navigation would also be affected. Some forms of life which are thought to navigate based on magnetic fields may be disrupted, but again it is suggested that these species have survived excursions in the past. Since excursion periods are not always global, any effect might well only be experienced in certain places, with others relatively unaffected. The time period involved could be as little as a century, or as much as 10,000 years.
Possible relationship to climate
Notes and references
- Roperch, P.; Bonhommet, N.; Levi, S. (1988). "Paleointensity of the earth's magnetic field during the Laschamp excursion and its geomagnetic implications". Earth and Planetary Science Letters 88 (1-2): 209–219. Bibcode:1988E&PSL..88..209R. doi:10.1016/0012-821X(88)90058-1.
- Gubbins, David (1999). "The distinction between geomagnetic excursions and reversals". Geophysical Journal International 137 (1): F1–F4. Bibcode:1999GeoJI.137....1C. doi:10.1046/j.1365-246X.1999.00810.x. Retrieved 19 April 2012.
- Rampino, Michael R. (1979). "Possible relationships between changes in global ice volume, geomagnetic excursions, and the eccentricity of the Earth's orbit". Geology 7 (12): 584–587. Bibcode:1979Geo.....7..584R. doi:10.1130/0091-7613(1979)7<584:PRBCIG>2.0.CO;2.