The Earth's
Magnetic Field


The Earth has a substantial magnetic field, a fact of some historical importance because of the role of the magnetic compass in exploration of the planet.

Structure of the Field

The field lines defining the structure of the magnetic field are similar to those of a simple bar magnet, as illustrated in the following figure.

The Earth's magnetic field and Van Allen radiation belts


It is well known that the axis of the magnetic field is tipped with respect to the rotation axis of the Earth. Thus, true north (defined by the direction to the north rotational pole) does not coincide with magnetic north (defined by the direction to the north magnetic pole) and compass directions must be corrected by fixed amounts at given points on the surface of the Earth to yield true directions.

Van Allen Radiation Belts

A fundamental property of magnetic fields is that they exert forces on moving electrical charges. Thus, a magnetic field can trap charged particles such as electrons and protons as they are forced to execute a spiraling motion back and forth along the field lines.

As illustrated in the adjacent figure, the charged particles are reflected at "mirror points" where the field lines come close together and the spirals tighten. One of the first fruits of early space exploration was the discovery in the late 1950s that the Earth is surrounded by two regions of particularly high concentration of charged particles called the Van Allen radiation belts.

The inner and outer Van Allen belts are illustrated in the top figure. The primary source of these charged particles is the stream of particles emanating from the Sun that we call the solar wind. As we shall see in a subsequent section, the charged particles trapped in the Earth's magnetic field are responsible for the aurora (Northern and Southern Lights).

Origin of the Magnetic Field

Magnetic fields are produced by the motion of electrical charges. For example, the magnetic field of a bar magnet results from the motion of negatively charged electrons in the magnet. The origin of the Earth's magnetic field is not completely understood, but is thought to be associated with electrical currents produced by the coupling of convective effects and rotation in the spinning liquid metallic outer core of iron and nickel. This mechanism is termed the dynamo effect.

Rocks that are formed from the molten state contain indicators of the magnetic field at the time of their solidification. The study of such "magnetic fossils" indicates that the Earth's magnetic field reverses itself every million years or so (the north and south magnetic poles switch). This is but one detail of the magnetic field that is not well understood.

The Earth's Magnetosphere

The solar wind mentioned above is a stream of ionized gases that blows outward from the Sun at about 400 km/second and that varies in intensity with the amount of surface activity on the Sun. The Earth's magnetic field shields it from much of the solar wind. When the solar wind encounters Earth's magnetic field it is deflected like water around the bow of a ship, as illustrated in the adjacent image (Source).

The imaginary surface at which the solar wind is first deflected is called the bow shock. The corresponding region of space sitting behind the bow shock and surrounding the Earth is termed the magnetosphere; it represents a region of space dominated by the Earth's magnetic field in the sense that it largely prevents the solar wind from entering. However, some high energy charged particles from the solar wind leak into the magnetosphere and are the source of the charged particles trapped in the Van Allen belts.


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