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Assuming that the magnetic field on Earth can suddenly flip, if really bad timing were to occur, wherein some of the biggest solar flares Earth has ever experienced rained down on the planet, could the bad timing have devestating effects on our plant and animial life?

For example, in the event of said magnetic flip, could the storms destroy the nature of any following atmosphere or say alter or change it slightly or even, say, destroy much of the possibility for life to continue on the planet? If the worst case scenario exceeds the ones described, could the ones described also be plausible given the stated conditions? If so, please elaborate :) - I'm trying to create a scene on a similar planet to our own wherein their magnetic field flips and solar flares more or less wipe out the vegetation on the planet such that it can't grow back but the planet still has an atmosphere. Even if life rejuvenated gradually, that would be okay in my scene. As well, an advanced civilization might still live on a planet without plants or animals, assuming they had the technology to create their own air, water and any necessary food.

Thank you if you know such information, and please don't hesitate to explain at length or provide references, if you like. :)

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I am assuming you are talking about the quick-going theory. Most past magnetic reversals have not been associated with any major catastrophe's. If the magnetic field somehow quit working entirely for a period, then we would be in trouble, but as it is the magnetic poles are gradually being moved. This process takes thousands of years and the magnetic field goes through periods of waxing and waning during the process. Now, if a really bad solar storm happened during a period of waning, we could safely assume a rise in cancer rates and sun poisoning, a total destruction of the technological world resulting from all tech being fried, but biological life would surely continue, at the very least in microbe form.

That being said, I highly doubt such a perfect series of catastrophic events could conceivably occur, and complex life would continue without a pause. A lot of people would die, but even we would survive that apocalypse. Maybe 20 or 30 years of anarchy before humans re-achieve our current level of technological prowess.

This might be interesting to read if you insist on continuing with this apocalypse.

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We currently have space weather satellites to give us advance warning of solar flares. They give us enough time to put satellites, power grids and other sensitive technology into protected modes. We just launched a new one, DSCOVR, to keep an eye on the Earth and the Sun.

If the poles started to switch and the magnetic field weakened, it will be relatively gradual and predictable. Unlike global warming, magnetic field flip doesn't require widespread change of industrial and personal habits, so there is unlikely to be social resistance to accepting and dealing with it. Our protection system would be stepped up becoming faster and more accurate, just like our weather prediction on Earth. Without our magnetic shield, the Sun won't bake the Earth, but it might gradually blow away some of our upper atmosphere including the protective ozone layer.

Space weather will become a way of life. Ask anyone in LA about smog alerts or in Australia about Sun Protection Times and Slip! Slop! Slap! and you'll see we've already adapted to unusual weather. Humanity will adapt the same way they always have, we'll monitor it, go inside when the weather is bad, and the rest of the planet will have to fend for itself.

As for the rest of the planet, the impact of a weakened magnetic field on plants and animals will be confusion. Any organism which uses the magnetic field to orient itself will be in trouble. The decreased protection from UV due to the upper atmosphere damage will harm plants. But no worse than the damage we've already done with pollution, habitat destruction and climate change.

In the end, humanity has already weathered (yuck, yuck) far worse terrestrial weather and far, far worse long term consequences of its own making. Your story might want to approach the consequences of the sliding "new normal" on society, the lowering of environmental expectations as people forget what it was like when you could just go outside without having to check the space weather.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the suggestion, Schwen. Luckily you put into perspective the improbability of such an event on any planet like ours with an advanced civilization. $\endgroup$ – Private Name Mar 4 '15 at 21:51

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