Earth's magnetic field has flipped many times over the last billion years, according to the geologic record. But only in the past decade have scientists developed and evolved a computer model to demonstrate how these reversals occur.
"We can see reversals in the rocks, but they don't tell us how it happens," said Gary Glatzmaier, an earth scientist and magnetic field expert at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Based on a set of physics equations that describe what scientists believe are the forces that create and maintain the magnetic field, Glatzmaier and colleague Paul Roberts at the University of California, Los Angeles, created a computer model to simulate the conditions in the Earth's interior.
The computer-generated magnetic field even reverses itself, allowing scientists to examine the process.
Scientists believe Earth's magnetic field is generated deep inside our planet. There, the heat of the Earth's solid inner core churns a liquid outer core composed of iron and nickel. The churning acts like convection, which generates electric currents and, as a result, a magnetic field.
This magnetic field shields most of the habited parts of our planet from charged particles that emanate from space, mainly from the sun. The field deflects the speeding particles toward Earth's Poles.
Our planet's magnetic field reverses about once every 200,000 years on average. However, the time between reversals is highly variable. The last time Earth's magnetic field flipped was 780,000 years ago, according to the geologic record of Earth's polarity.
The information is captured when molten lava erupts onto Earth's crust and hardens, much in the way that iron filings on a piece of cardboard align themselves to the field of a magnet held beneath it.
Most scientists believe our planet's magnetic field is sustained by what's known as the geodynamo. The term describes the theoretical phenomenon believed to generate and maintain Earth's magnetic field. However, there is no way to peer 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) into Earth's center to observe the process in action.
That inability spurred Glatzmaier and Roberts to develop their computer model in 1995. Since then, they have continued to refine and evolve the model using ever more sophisticated and faster computers.
The model is essentially a set of equations that describe the physics of the geodynamo. The equations are continually solved, each solution advancing the clock forward about a week. At its longest stretch, the model ran the equivalent of 500,000 years, Glatzmaier said.
By studying the model, the scientists discovered that, as the geodynamo generates new magnetic fields, the new fields usually line up in the direction of the existing magnetic field.
"But once in a while a disturbance will twist the magnetic field in a different direction and induce a little bit of a pole reversal," Glatzmaier said.
These bits of a pole reversal are referred to as instabilities. They constantly occur in the fluid flow of the core, tracking through it like little hurricanes, though at a much slower pace—about one degree of latitude per year.
Typically, instabilities are temporary. But on very rare occasions, conditions are favorable enough that the reversed polarity gets bigger and bigger as the original polarity decays. If this new polarity takes over the entire core, it causes a pole reversal.
"It's a very complicated, chaotic system, and it has a life of its own," Glatzmaier said.
Peter Olson, a geophysicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, said scientists can now pinpoint the core-mantle boundary where these instabilities in the magnetic field are happening.
One such disturbance Olson has been observing recently formed over the east-central Atlantic Ocean. Like a little hurricane, the anomaly swept toward the Caribbean and is moving up in the direction of North America.
"It's a new one, a little thing," Olson said. "Time will tell whether it develops into something significant. But it is here in the North Atlantic, moving towards the Pentagon. We can track it over the next couple of decades."
Instabilities such as this, Olson added, are causing Earth's magnetic field to weaken. Today the field is about 10 percent weaker than it was when German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss first began measuring it in 1845. Some scientists speculate the field is headed for a reversal.
(Read: "What Ancient African Huts Reveal About Earth's Magnetic Flips.")