Exposing PseudoAstronomy

January 29, 2009

Planet X and 2012: The Pole Shift (Magnetic) Explained and Debunked


Continuing my series on Planet X and 2012, one of the main claims of what will actually happen is termed a “Pole Shift.” Sounds scary, huh? The Earth’s pole(s) … shifting!?

But what does it actually mean? Well, Earth actually has two sets of North and South Poles – the geographic and the magnetic. Most of the doomsdayers that I’ve heard seem to imply that they are talking about a geographic pole shift, but some also talk about a magnetic pole shift. Since both are completely different, and since they are significant enough topics by themselves, I am doing separate posts on them. This one addresses the magnetic pole.

All posts in this series:

Earth’s Magnetic Field

Most people have either seen in-person or in video a crane in a junkyard that, instead of a hook at one end, has a large metal plate. They have then seen that metal plate “activated” by something, and it becomes a strong magnet – strong enough to lift multi-ton cars. What you have just witnessed is called an “induced magnetic field.”

Induced magnetic fields are created by electricity moving in circles. It’s the principle behind all electromagnets (most medical imaging today relies upon it) and electric motors. It’s also what our planet’s magnetic field is created by.

Earth’s magnetic field is called a “magnetic dynamo” because it is produced by liquid metals moving around in Earth’s core. As these metals move, they induce currents, which create magnetic fields. Since the planet has a net rotation in one direction, the created magnetic field is built up and roughly aligned with that axis of rotation.

Earth’s magnetic field is in the form of a “dipole,” meaning that it has a “North” and “South,” or “positive” and “negative” side to it, much like a bar magnet. The field breaches Earth’s surface at the south magnetic pole, extends into space in what is known as the “magnetosphere,” and dives back into Earth at the north magnetic pole, as illustrated in the figure on the right.

Polar Wander

In 2001, Earth’s north magnetic pole was at coordinates 81.3° N by 110.8° W. But in 2004, three years later, it had moved to 82.3° N by 113.4° W. And a year later, in 2005, it was at 82.7° N by 114.4° W. Similarly, the south magnetic pole shifted, as well.

But, how could that happen? Earth’s magnetic field should be stationary, just like the geographic poles, right? Isn’t this evidence of something catastrophic happening?

In a word: No.

Earth’s magnetic poles appear to wander throughout time, and not just due to the continents drifting. “Polar wander” refers to it moving, while “true polar wander” refers to it moving relative to a fixed coordinate system that takes the continents’ movement into account. The field strength also is not constant with time, varying by location and by year. It also varies on much longer timescales, flipping over entirely (north becoming south and vice versa). The last time it flipped occurred approximately 780,000 years ago. (Evidence for this is found in the magnetic field of relatively fresh ocean crust, among other places.)

It is unknown at this time what causes Earth’s magnetic field to wander, vary, and occasionally flip. Modeling the field is very difficult, and all of the physics of it is not yet understood. The oft-portrayed simple magnetic field, as shown in the diagram above, is not correct. The field is much more complex, and it was featured in NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day in November of 2002, shown on the right. The magnetic field lines are a tangled mess and only when you average over them to you get the dipole magnet that most of us are familiar with.

What Happens When the Field Shifts?

Nothing of importance. As I explained in the above section, Earth’s magnetic field has been shifting at a rate of over 1° per year for many years, with data going back well over a century. And, alas for the doomsdayers, nothing bad has happened.

What Happens When the Field Flips?

This scenario – which we are almost certain will happen again since it has happened many many times in geologic history – is a little more dangerous, but that is mostly because we are an electronic society.

In terms of humans and biology, again, nothing of importance will happen. The magnetic field is relatively weak, and if you go in for an MRI you are exposed to fields many orders of magnitude larger than Earth’s. And nothing bad happens unless you’re wearing metal. Birds may be a little confused, but they existed prior to the reversal 780,000 years ago and seem to have gotten through it just fine, as anyone who lives in a city and deals with pigeons on a daily basis can attest.

In terms of what would happen to the field, it would not just shut off one day and then come back the next in the opposite direction. It won’t shut off at all. It will decrease in its strength while more magnetic field lines in the north start to turn “south,” and more in the south start to turn “north.” When more than half are the opposite of what they were, then the net effect will be that the field has flipped over.

So what will happen to us in a decreased magnetic field? Well, the main problem is that the magnetosphere will shrink. This “protective bubble” that shields us from the sun’s streaming charged particles will no longer extend as far into space. So, very high-orbit satellites will be exposed to more radiation, and consequently they will be more prone to failure, especially during any burst of solar activity, unless we have developed better ways to shield their electronics. Similarly, a burst of solar activity can induce magnetic fields in power lines (and railroad tracks) on Earth, causing surges that can short out the grid. This can (and likely will, as it already has in the past) cause blackouts, as happened in 1989 in Canada.

Does this mean the end of the world? No. It means we need to upgrade our power distribution systems around the world and keep them updated as opposed to how they’ve been languishing for decades. In fact, just today (January 28, 2009), the American Society of Civil Engineers released their 2009 annual report card, giving the US’s energy infrastructure a “D+” (the average grade was a “D”). They state:

Progress has been made in grid reinforcement since 2005 and substantial investment in generation, transmission and distribution is expected over the next two decades. Demand for electricity has grown by 25% since 1990. Public and government opposition and difficulty in the permitting processes are restricting much needed modernization. Projected electric utility investment needs could be as much as $1.5 trillion by 2030.

Now, contrast what I’ve explained the effects would be with what doomsday folks are saying, such as this article:

“As the shift approaches, things begin to go out of balance, and the magnetic field begins to fluctuate significantly over a very short period of time (about 3 – 6 months). This would be like a full moon getting bigger and bigger every day. What happens then is that people start to go crazy emotionally. This breaks down economical and social structures on the planet because it is only people who keep these structures together.”

A very quick analysis shows: We’ve got a false analogy (magnetic field changing has nothing to do and is nothing like the moon changing size), an assumed effect without any causation, and then a reducio ad absurdum when they just take the assumed effect to extreme levels.

What Would Cause This Magnetic Pole Shift That You’ve Said Won’t Happen in 2012?

Good question. The mechanisms proposed – that I’ve heard and read about – really amount to nothing but misunderstandings, numerology, or conjecture founded in superstition. They include: Earth’s rotation switching directions, Earth getting whopped by an asteroid, The sun’s magnetic field flipping ours, Planet X (Planet X seems to be able to do anything, as I’ll talk about in future posts), and some various mystical things.

I wish I could state, “needless to say, these (a) won’t happen and (b) even if they did can’t flip our magnetic field.” I can still say it if I chop off the “needless” part. The fact that when I just did a Google search to try to find folks’ mechanisms for this the first few pages were nearly all doomsday pages should tell you that these are very popular ideas in popular culture. So, I really do need to say: “These (a) won’t happen and (b) even if they did can’t flip our magnetic field.”

Without addressing each individual claim, I will broadly address the two categories of claims – a large external physical force, or a large external magnetic force. The basic reason why neither of these will happen in 2012 is that there is nothing that we know of that has enough force to affect Earth’s field on a global scale. Let’s say, for example, we get hit by an asteroid. An asteroid that’s huge – 100 km in radius (all of which have known been identified and have known orbits). Assuming the asteroid is the densest and heaviest – an iron-nickel asteroid (a composition which only 10% of asteroids are) – then it would have a mass of about 4.2·1015 kg. That’s a lot. But Earth has a mass that is 6.0·1024 kg … over 109 times more. It would be like a grain of dust hitting a car. NOTHING will happen to the Earth as a whole. Yes, it would be bad for us and for life, but the planet really wouldn’t care. Now, if another planet were to hit us, then Earth would be in trouble.

So what about a large external magnetic force? There’s nothing large enough that’s nearby. Sure, if we were to pass by a magnetar, we’ll be in trouble. Those have magnetic fields on the order of ~1015 times stronger than Earth’s. But the sun’s magnetic field really shows no evidence of affecting ours to the point of flipping it. There is no evidence at all – historic or validated theoretical – to show that the sun’s magnetic field, which is only up to ~10x stronger than Earth’s, can flip ours. After all, if it could, then it would every 11 years, since that’s how often the sun’s field flips.

So I’ve now given two ways that this really could happen – if a planet-mass object or an extraordinarily large magnetic field were to hit us or come near us, that could affect Earth’s rotation or magnetic field to the point where we would get a magnetic pole reversal (or, I guess a really big “shift”). However, we now again get to the question of evidence: There is none. We would know of a planet-sized (or larger) object that is close enough to come near us in 4 years (the end of 2012), or even 40 years. You can read my post on the Real Planet X for more information on that. Similarly, we would see effects of a gigantic magnetic field nearby that’s close enough to affect us in the near future, something we also do not see any evidence for.

Final Thoughts

Despite this post being over 1800 words – another long one – I still feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. That’s mainly because there are nearly as many variations of what’s “predicted” to happen with the magnetic pole shift as there are people making the predictions. In this post, I’ve tried more to focus on the background information – the state of the science – and then point out why many of the main predictions are not correct nor feasible when confronted with what we can actually observe. It’s impossible to get into every single claim because more crop up as soon as you debunk one (much like conspiracy theories).

Hence I have tried to give you the basic information to be able to figure out why the idea of 2012 somehow coinciding with an event that will cause a magnetic pole shift has no basis in reality. If you come across (or have) a claim that I haven’t addressed within this topic, please leave a comment!

January 27, 2009

Planet X and 2012: The PseudoAstronomy (or Just Plain Wrong Astronomy) About a Galactic Alignment


One of the many “theories” behind the 2012 doomsday scenario – but one of the few that does not involve the “Planet X” (at least in sum and substance) is the idea that on December 21, 2012 (sound familiar?), the sun and/or solar system will come into alignment with the galactic plane or center of our galaxy and cause bad stuff to happen. There are several different proponents of this, including John Major Jenkins and Brent Miller, the latter also linking it with a Planet X (discussed in future posts).

Note that most of the numbers/values in this post come from the book, Galaxies in the Universe (an undergrad/grad text) by Linda Sparke and John Gallagher, © 2000.

All posts in this series:

A Crash Course in the Sun’s Orbit

We are on Earth. Earth orbits the sun (a star). The sun orbits the Milky Way, our galaxy. Just as Earth orbits within the solar system but still orbits the solar system’s center of mass, the sun orbits the Milky Way’s center of mass but is still inside the Milky Way (that’s a complicated way of saying that we are neither at the center of our galaxy nor at the edge).

As Monty Python’s song states, “The sun and you and me, plus all the stars that we can see, are moving at a million miles a day, … the galaxy we call the Milky Way. Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars, … we go ’round every 200 million years.” The numbers are reasonably accurate, though our orbital period is more recently calculated to be approximately 250 million years to make one complete ellipse around the center. Notice that I said “ellipse” for the orbit. This is correct, but to very good approximation, the stars out by us are mostly on nearly circular orbits.

Besides just orbiting in a single plane (as in like a flat piece of paper), stars also oscillate through the general gravitational plane of the galaxy. They generally stay within the “thin disk” that contains 95% of the stars, but this thin disk is on the order of about 1000 light-years thick (though, compared with the diameter of the galaxy being 100,000 light-years, this is still pretty thin). Our sun is one of those stars that does oscillate through the gravitational central plane of our galaxy.

The Sun’s Current Position and Velocity

Today, yesterday, and tomorrow, the sun does not lie in the galactic midplane, but it is about 35-70 light-years “above” it (since there’s no “up” in space, you could also say it lies below it). It is also currently still traveling “upwards” in the direction of the North Galactic Pole at a rate of 7-8 km/sec.

It is also not on a perfectly circular orbit relative to the plane of the galaxy, moving presently inward at a rate of 10-11 km/sec. Its rotational velocity around the center of the galaxy is about 200 km/sec.

I should also note that the center of our galaxy, the supergiant black hole known as Sag A* (pronounced “Sag A-star” or “Sagittarius A-star”), is the celestial coordinates 17 h 45m 40s RA, -29° 00′ 28.00″ DEC. What those actually mean is unimportant at the moment, just keep it in mind.

First of Two Ideas of the Galactic Center/Plane and its Relation to 2012

There are really two main premises of what will happen in or around 2012 in regards to the plane of the Milky Way. The first was popularized by John Major Jenkins back in 1998, and it deals with an apparent alignment, as viewed from Earth. To quote him:

Amazingly, the center of this cosmic cross, that is, right where the ecliptic crosses over the Milky Way, is exactly where the December solstice sun will be in A.D 2012. This alignment occurs only once every 25,800 years. [page XXXIX, italics are his]

The bottom line of my theory is that the ancient Maya chose the 2012 end-date because this is the date on which occurs a rare alignment of the solstice sun with the Galactic Center. [page XLI, italics are his]

The Long Count calendar is a galactic calendar because it pinpoints a rare alignment with our Milky Way Galaxy, due to occur in A.D. 2012 – a date written as in the Long Count. [page 105]

However, he gets the dates wrong, and corrects it in a later book published in 2002:

Early on in my research, I recognised that the solstice-galaxy alignment would occur around 1998 or 1999. This was based on precise astronomical concepts (e.g. galactic equator and solstice colure) and a rough estimate I made with EZCosmos astronomy software, confirmed by the calculations of European astronomer Jean Meeus and the US Naval Observatory. I’ll have more to say about this precise timing in chapter 21, but suffice it to say two things here. First, the fourteen-year error between 1998 and 2012 amounts to less than one-fifth of a degree – a tiny sliver of the width of the full moon and thus negligible, considering it is a forward calculation in precession of at least 2,000 years. Second, the sun itself is one-half a degree wide, so an alignment zone between 1980 and 2016 must be allowed, thus embracing the 2012 end-date. [page 12]

His math is a little wrong – 0.2° is actually 40% of the width of the full moon, not a tiny sliver, but I’ll forgive that for the sake of just presenting his argument.

Journalist Lawrence Joseph expanded upon this in his own book, Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation Into Civilization’s End. In a statement to USA Today, he said:

Part of the 2012 mystique stems from the stars. On the winter solstice in 2012, the sun will be aligned with the center of the Milky Way for the first time in about 26,000 years. This means that “whatever energy typically streams to Earth from the center of the Milky Way will indeed be disrupted on 12/21/12 at 11:11 p.m. Universal Time,” Joseph writes.

Why This Is Wrong

Jenkins’ premise is actually somewhat correct in the sense that, yes, the sun will be somewhat near the plane of the galaxy as seen from Earth around the winter solstice in 2012. But not anywhere near Sag A*. And there’s nothing mystical about the plane of the galaxy … in fact, the sun passes “through” it as seen from Earth once a year. It just so happens that for the last ~300 years through the next ~300 years, this will happen to coincide with mid-December – winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere and summer in the Southern. There is really NOTHING special about this other than New-Age woo and mysticism.

The Second of Two Ideas of the Galactic Center/Plane and its Relation to 2012

The second idea is that our solar system will actually pass through the plane of the galaxy on December 21, 2012 — instead of an apparent alignment, this version of the claim is that it is a physical alignment. I’m sure others believe it, but the person I have heard this from is Brent Miller of the Horizon Project. Now, just from a practical standpoint, I want to make this point: Brent and the folks at the Horizon Project claim to have incontrovertible proof that Earth will suffer considerably in 2012 due to various things. However, they don’t provide that information on their website (thehorizonproject.com). Rather, they want you to order their DVD for “only $24.95 each!” Now, capitalism is great and all that, but you would think that if they really want to help people survive this thing when they literally claim that up to half the world’s population will die within a day, then they’d be putting out as much free information as possible.

Note that the material and quotes in this section of the post come from Miller’s interview by George Noory on Coast-to-Coast AM from November 10, 2008.

Anyway … their idea is based on a few major false premises. Their scenario is that our galaxy has a central, massive black hole (this is true). Stars oscillate up and down through the plane of the galaxy (this is also true, as I explained in the beginning of this post). This black hole sends out gravity waves (this is predicted by Einstein, but has never been proven). These gravity waves radiate along the plane of the galaxy, creating a “dark rift” zone that is filled with asteroid-sized dust material (this is where it starts to get … incorrect would be the most polite term, or perhaps unproven and unlikely). In addition to being populated by this potentially dangerous material, it has “a very very large intense gravitational field to it, and it takes about 20 years for our planet and the solar system to pass through it.”

Miller makes many claims as to the effects that crossing through this “dark rift” would have on Earth, the bulk of which is called a “pole shift” that I will address in a future blog posting in this series on Planet X and 2012. For the purpose of this post, I am solely going to address his mechanism for doomsday, which is us passing through this “dark rift.”

Why This Is Wrong

First off, keep in mind that this is the entire mechanism for all of Miller’s doomsday predictions (that will be addressed in a future post, as the “pole shift” topic is quite extensive and has its own branch of pseudoscience surrounding it). Consequently, if I can show that his entire mechanism is flawed, then it should cast serious doubt upon his predictions.

And, I can do that fairly easily by referring to the data in the second section of this post: The sun right now is above the midplane of the galaxy by 35-70 light-years, and it’s still moving away from it. It is NOT, as Miller claims, currently in the middle of a 20-year process of moving through this midplane. It is far from it. And, if he has actual data (as in real science) to back up his claim of the sun’s position in the galaxy, then why doesn’t he publish it in the scientific literature? If nothing else, this should make someone seriously question his mechanism, and hence his claims. And ask for actual evidence that can be independently tested.

There’s another reason why this is wrong. The galactic midplane is not this abrupt region of increased gravity. This is a common misconception in astronomy, that galaxies are “solid” objects. All the midplane is is a non-pysical, mathematical 2-D plane where if you add all the gravity from the material below it and above it, then you get the largest possible value. Go a little above it, and there is more mass below you that will pull you back down (eventually). Go a little below it, and the reverse happens.

It is true that, simply by a “settling” of material over time, there is a greater density of stars and gas and dust the closer to this plane that you get. And there’s less as you get farther away.

A reasonable way to think of this is like a valley, or a gently sloped, shallow bowl. If you’re near the top of the valley or the rim of the bowl, then you are going to get pulled down towards the center. And then your momentum will carry you past the center, and you’ll climb back up the other side. And when your momentum runs out, you’ll fall back down towards the center, and this cycle will repeat.

What Miller wants to throw in there is effectively a brick wall … or perhaps a wall of molasses. In his scenario, when you get to the center, you hit that wall and will be affected by something that only exists in the center of the bowl (or valley). What I am saying is that the galaxy is not built that way, there’s no wall, no “dark rift” no “very very large intense gravitational field” to the central few hundred billion kilometers that’s filled with Planet Xs and asteroids and other dangers that will cause doomsday to happen in the neighborhood of 2012.

Final Thoughts

After reading over this post, I realize that some of the ideas are not laid out quite as extensively as I usually do. This is because I’ve only just touched the tip of the iceberg on these galactic crossing scenarios, doing case studies on two specific peoples’ claims, and explaining superficially why they are wrong while trying not to get into other aspects that I will cover on other posts (like the “pole shift”). In addition, these claims are just so incorrect – according to everything that we can observe – that it is somewhat difficult to figure out where exactly to start with the debunking.

If you feel that I have not explained myself clearly, would like more information, or care to argue the point, please leave a comment so I know what to address.

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