A DISASTROUS collapse of the Earth’s magnetic field wiped out the Neanderthals and could happen again, according to a new study.
Researchers say the event left Earth exposed to burning cosmic radiation and, unfortunately, think we’re overdue a repeat.
The Earth is protected from cosmic radiation by a magnetic field that stems from its magnetic polesCredit: Getty Images – Getty
Earth’s magnetic field shields us from the cosmic radiation of space.
It stretches out from Earth’s magnetic poles located at the north and south of the planet.
Occasionally, Earth’s magnetic poles are said to flip and this causes a temporary weakening of the Earth’s magnetic field, allowing radiation from space to reach our planet.
These events are known as geomagnetic excursions and can last hundreds of years.
Scientists think the dramatic event forced early humans into caves for shelterCredit: Gobierno de Cantabria
They’re not to be confused with full geomagnetic reversals that take thousands of years.
Scientists think there have been 183 reversals of Earth’s poles over the last 83 million years but excursions occur more often.
They could result in extreme UV radiation, red skies and lightning storms amongst other extreme weather events.
Scientists at the University of New South Wales in Australia have been studying ancient trees and think they’ve found evidence of the last magnetic pole flip happening 42,000 years ago.
Previously, the event was not thought to have a large impact on the planet but the new study suggests it had huge environmental implications that led to the demise of the Neanderthals.
Pinpointing an exact time of the last magnetic pole shift has highlighted how it coincides with big palaeolithic events.
This includes the disappearance of Neanderthals, a huge increase in cave art and the mass extinction of very large animals.
The researchers have connected these events together and are collectively referring to them as the “Adam’s Event”.
Samples from ancient trees were used to pinpoint the magnetic pole flip eventCredit: www.nelsonskaihukauri.co.nz
The name is a tribute to writer Douglas Adams, who wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which claimed that ‘42’ was the answer to life.
Other studies had previously indicated the last magnetic pole flip happening around 41-42,000 years ago but aren’t said to have made the connection with the evidence of extreme events happening at the same time.
Co-lead author of the study Chris Turney revealed in a UNSW statement: “For the first time ever, we have been able to precisely date the timing and environmental impacts of the last magnetic pole switch.
“The findings were made possible with ancient New Zealand kauri trees, which have been preserved in sediments for over 40,000 years.
“Using the ancient trees we could measure, and date, the spike in atmospheric radiocarbon levels caused by the collapse of Earth’s magnetic field.”
The researchers created a new timeline of events that occurred around the time Earth’s atmosphere changed.
The magnetic pole flip would have left the Earth very vulnerableCredit: Getty Images – Getty
They think it could explain a lot of evolutionary mysteries.
No one is sure exactly why magnetic poles flip but each time is given a name and the one 42,000 years ago is called the Laschamps Excursion.
Professor Turney explained: “The Laschamps Excursion was the last time the magnetic poles flipped.
“They swapped places for about 800 years before changing their minds and swapping back again.”
Scientists think this led to Earth’s cosmic shield essentially disappearing and sending life on Earth into caves for shelter.
It can take hundreds of either thousands of years for the Earth’s poles to revert back and the reversal can cause many poles to form sporadically all over the planet.
Co-lead author Professor Alan Cooper said: “It must have seemed like the end of days.”
He added: “We think that the sharp increases in UV levels, particularly during solar flares, would suddenly make caves very valuable shelters.
“The common cave art motif of red ochre handprints may signal it was being used as sunscreen, a technique still used today by some groups.
“The amazing images created in the caves during this time have been preserved, while other art out in open areas has since eroded, making it appear that art suddenly starts 42,000 years ago.”
Earth’s magnetic poles are known to wander often but some scientists are concerned about how rapid the north magnetic pole is moving across Northern Hemisphere.
Professor Cooper said: “This speed – alongside the weakening of Earth’s magnetic field by around nine per cent in the past 170 years – could indicate an upcoming reversal.
“If a similar event happened today, the consequences would be huge for modern society. Incoming cosmic radiation would destroy our electric power grids and satellite networks.”
The researchers also highlighted how climate change could result in the extreme environmental events seen thousands of years ago.
Cooper added: “We urgently need to get carbon emissions down before such a random event happens again.”
The full study about the Adam’s Event has been published in the journal Science.
A timeline of life on Earth
The history of the planet in years…
- 4.6billion years ago – the origin of Earth
- 3.8billion years ago – first life appears on Earth
- 2.1billion years ago – lifeforms made up of multiple cells evolve
- 1.5billion years ago – eukaryotes, which are cells that contain a nucleus inside of their membranes, emerge
- 550million years ago – first arthropods evolve
- 530million years ago – first fish appear
- 470million years ago – first land plants appear
- 380million years ago – forests emerge on Earth
- 370million years ago – first amphibians emerge from the water onto land
- 320million years ago – earliest reptiles evolve
- 230million years ago – dinosaurs evolve
- 200million years ago – mammals appear
- 150million years ago – earliest birds evolve
- 130million years ago – first flowering plants
- 100million years ago – earliest bees
- 55million years ago – hares and rabbits appear
- 30million years ago – first cats evolve
- 20million years ago – great apes evolve
- 7million years ago –first human ancestors appear
- 2million years ago – Homo erectus appears
- 300,000 years ago – Homo sapiens evolves
- 50,000 years ago – Eurasia and Oceania colonised
- 40,000 years ago – Neandethal extinction
In other news, new analysis of the remains of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh has revealed he may have been brutally murdered on the battlefield.
Human skeletons have been discovered on a 1717 pirate shipwreck just off the coast of Cape Cod in the US.
And, an ancient mummy with a golden tongue has been unearthed in Egypt.
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