A tear in the magnetic field

Don't panic yet but NASA researchers discovered two giant holes in the Earth's magnetic field last summer. The news of the discovery was just made public last week.

Such an unreal scenario seems ready made for a science-fiction disaster movie: the Earth's magnetic field weaken as lethal solar energy - in the form of energetic particles - showers the Earth with deadly radiation. Plant and animal life begin to die as an invisible atomic enemy attacks the planet from outer space.

How can the people of Earth stop such a space-weather disaster from progressing? It's an interesting what if scenario - a natural calamity you can't naively blame on global warming or the oil companies. Trading in your SUVfor an econobox won't solve the problem either.

The sensitive detection instruments of NASA's THEMIS (short for Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) space mission - a marvellous five spacecraft constellation launched in 2007 that will study geomagnetic space disturbances until 2010 - is credited for finding the first ever tears in Earth's magnetic field. And it all happened just a few months ago.

At first glance, the idea of a hole in the Earth's magnetic field sounds scary. But you can relax for now. There's really no evidence that this event was espeically unusual or that it spells disaster to life on Earth.

The Earth's magnetic field is a vast, largely invisible natural "shield" of electromagnetic radiation that protects our blue planet from nasty solar energy composed of supercharged particles (which can disrupt electric power grids, desktop computers, and electronic communications - yes, even your cellular telephone). Many of these very same solar particles help create your glamorous summer suntan - and the skin melanomas you will get decades after exposing yourself to the full force of solar rays at the beach.

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