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You might imagine the magnetic field is a timeless, constant aspect of life on Earth, and to some extent you would be right. Every so often – on the order of several hundred thousand years or so – the magnetic field has flipped. And when the field flips it also tends to become very weak.
What currently has geophysicists like us abuzz is the realization that the strength of Earth’s magnetic field has been decreasing for the last 160 years at an alarming rate.
This collapse is centered in a huge expanse of the Southern Hemisphere, extending from Zimbabwe to Chile, known as the South Atlantic Anomaly.
The magnetic field strength is so weak there that it’s a hazard for satellites that orbit above the region – the field no longer protects them from radiation which interferes with satellite electronics.
Without a magnetic field, our atmosphere would slowly be stripped away by harmful radiation, and life would almost certainly not exist as it does today.Just as in the case of the firing and cooling of a pot, the clay in these structures recorded Earth’s magnetic field as they cooled.Because the floors of these ancient huts and grain bins can sometimes be found intact, we can sample them to obtain a record of both the direction and strength of their contemporary magnetic field.Upon cooling, the magnetic minerals record the direction and intensity of the magnetic field at that time.If one can determine the age of the pot, or the archaeological site from which it came (using radiocarbon dating, for instance), then an archaeomagnetic history can be recovered.
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For example, clay used to make pottery contains small amounts of magnetic minerals, such as magnetite.