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When Our Earth Stops Spinning

Will our planet stop its spin? Do we have a future pole reversal? This is a look at Earth's slow shift and what would happen if our planet stopped spinning completely.

If our Earth stopped spinning quickly, two important elements of our planet would continue their movements: The crust of the Earth can move hundreds of miles a day and would continue this pattern, and our atmosphere (jet stream, oceans, weather) would wipe the surface of our planet with enormous intensity. Both would clear the landscape and kill all life—or most of it, anyway! I wonder if there's a possibility that this is why there's no Atlantis and Egypt is no longer a jungle. Have we ever swiftly slowed down before? Scientists don't believe so.

As we all know by now, our planet has been gradually slowing in its rotation. At some point, scientists believe that something hit us, sending us spinning and breaking off a chunk that became our moon. We probably had six-hour days at some point. Around the time dinosaurs inhabited our planet, it's estimated that Earth days, called a "solar day" because of the time it takes to complete a full turn on its axis, were about 23 hours. Since then, our Earth has continued to slow down, giving us leap seconds every century or so and eventually little more than a 24-hour rotation. The pull between us and our moon affects our tidal forces as it travels around us in an imperfect circle. This friction actually slows us down when it comes close. As our moon begins the journey away, the gravitational pull between us is lessened, and it can propel away... again. Our moon's distance from us has actually grown further away during that part of its orbit. Since those fractions of seconds that our Earth slows down can add up, our solar days have had to grow longer. We last added leap seconds to our clocks on June 30, 2012.

That's how we are definitely slowing down. It's very highly unlikely that Earth would just stop spinning sooner than scientists predicted. It's been a gradual, billion-year process so far. Fast forward a billion more years to Earth's future, when humans no longer exist, and Earth may just nearly have slowed to a rotation of what will be a 72-hour crawl. Of course, that's if we don't get smashed by an asteroid like the one below. Asteroid 2016 NF23 is between 230–525 feet wide and is estimated to fly by from a distance of about three million miles on August 29, 2018.

Asteroid 2016 NF23

Diagram from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab

Anything this big impacting us would be sure to both spin up our rotation and wreak havoc on life as we know it on this planet. The asteroid's path gives me the impression that it's a planet that has been circling our sun. Even though it's going to pass so far away, I wonder what happens if the calculations are off, even just a little. Even if it hit our moon, it's big enough to leave a huge mark and flying pieces of cheese everywhere!

What do we really have to be ready for?

The magnetic poles on Earth have completely shifted before. This happens a lot more swiftly than a billion years, and the last time there was a total reversal was about 750,000 years ago. Geologists have found proof of that shift on fossils that lay on our sea bed. They are a mirror pattern of stripes that show the long-ago polarity reversal. A complete shift takes almost 200 years, which geologists feel is a pretty swift change. A partial shift started about 68,000 years ago, so we are about due for the total reversal. When this happens, our magnetic poles are not able to protect us from the harmful rays of our sun. 

The Weakening of Earth's Magnetic Field

Map of South Atlantic Anomaly 

The thing that really tells us how close we are to another total reversal of our magnetic poles is the weakening of Earth's magnetic field. This has been happening for about 160 years. Scientists call this the "South Atlantic Anomaly" because the weakening has been centered in our Southern Hemisphere and stretches from Zimbabwe, South Africa, to Chile, South America. The low magnetic field strength during this reversal means the Sun's radiation can reach the surface of our Earth. Our exposure to radiation has already affected the electronics of satellites, navigation systems, and even the rates of cancer for people in this South Atlantic region. Our newest phenomenon, in our Aurora Borealis, that scientists named STEVE (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement), is probably linked to predicted changes of the Northern Lights appearance. It's most likely due to the weak protection the South Atlantic Anomaly offers us. Let us not forget the whales! Sea life and other wildlife that use the magnetic poles for navigation, like whales, sharks, and birds, can get confused.

Now, like I stated, Asteroid 2016 NF23 seems like a planet. Who knows if it will really just swing by us at 13 times the distance of our moon? We'll just have to wait until next week! In the meantime, I'll be working on a blog on how to get survival gear together... just in case!


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