It's not the end of the world, but there could be some changes.
According to NASA, the Earth's magnetic poles are due for a shakeup, one that could prompt them to flip 180˚. I know, this sounds bad. First things first–and this may sound supremely obvious or very reassuring based on your level of knowledge on the subject–the flipping of the magnetic poles will not result in any of the following:
A. A chain eruption of the world's volcanoes
B. Massive earthquakes and tsunamis
C. A complete technological breakdown a la Y2K
Okay, now that we've gone through our Day After Tomorrow doomsday checklist, it's time to examine what actually might happen. In order to do this however, we have to look back in time. Based on geological studies, we know that for the past 20 million years, Earth's magnetic poles have flipped roughly every 200,000-300,000 years. It's been close to 800,000 years since the last reversal, so we're definitely overdue. That said, this flip probably won't happen overnight. In fact, there are estimates that indicate changes in the past have occurred slowly, taking a few thousand years to fully develop. This is both a good and a bad thing. It's good, because if the poles shift slowly, we'll be able to address any unforeseen consequences as they occur, rather than having a bunch of problems dropped into our lap all at once. The problem is, this slow rate of change may leave our atmosphere vulnerable.
Luckily for us, Earth is surrounded by a powerful magnetic field that protects the surface from cosmic radiation. During a geomagnetic reversal however, this field is temporarily weakened, providing less protection against solar flares. If a magnetic reversal occurs, holes in the ozone, like the one in Antarctica, could become the norm. On a positive note, these holes wouldn't be permanent, but their presence would almost certainly correspond with an increase in skin cancer diagnoses due to the abundance of ultraviolet rays that would penetrate our atmosphere. Thankfully though, the amount cosmic radiation that gets through wasn't enough to cause widespread genetic mutations in the past, and claims that magnetic pole reversal is related to mass extinction are spurious at best. While a complete thinning of the Earth's magnetic field would have some serious side effects, it's nearly impossible to predict the degree to which it would be weakened if the poles do flip, if being the operative word.
That's right, despite the fact that Earth's magnetic field's strength has been decreasing for at least the last 160 years, there's a chance that the poles won't flip at all, that the process will be aborted. There is a precedence for this, as a similar phenomenon occurred about 40,000 years ago.
Still, if our poles do flip completely, there will be some consequences. For one, campers and wilderness experts will probably have to buy new compasses. According to Nadia Drake, north will be in Antarctica and south will be somewhere in Canada. The true victims in the event of geomagnetic reversal however, will be migratory animals such as birds and sea turtles. There's a significant chance they'll have a hard time resetting their migration patterns. That said, if the fossil record is to be believed, animals have been able to sort themselves out in the past. There's no reason to believe that today's birds wouldn't eventually adjust to the new polarity.
In the end, the flipping of our magnetic poles sounds much more frightening than it actually is. The worst case scenario is one in which we all wear a little more sunscreen and sales of UV-resistant windows go way up, and there's no telling whether or not this will actually happen. There is one extremely cool benefit of a geomagnetic shift: the Auroras Borealis–a reaction between the sun's particles and our atmosphere– will be visible all over the planet. Whether they'll retain the name "Northern Lights" is a matter of speculation however.
According to experts, Cape Town may only be the beginning.
In preparations for what officials have called Day Zero, the city of Cape Town has issued restrictions on its citizens water use; Day Zero representing the day when the city is completely out of clean water. While Day Zero was originally pegged for April of this year, it has since been pushed back to 2019, leaving many wondering whether or not it was just a ploy by the Cape Town government to curb its citizens' water use. Either way, one thing is certain, Cape Town is facing a severe water shortage, and is one of the world's first major cities to fear losing its access to water outright. If Day Zero does occur, the South African government will be forced to turn off every tap in the city and distribute water at various checkpoints.
While there are certain companies and government agencies trying to figure out a solution– ranging from desalination to harvesting icebergs in Antarctica–the idea that a city with a population of almost four million could run out of water is terrifying. To compound things further, NASA recently conducted scans of the Earth and determined that there are dozens of areas at risk of becoming the next Cape Town.
Cape Town's water shortage is nothing short of catastrophe in the making, but some of the places that NASA is pointing out have much higher population densities. The study, which uses gravitational satellite data, pinpointed northern India, northeastern China, and most of the Middle East as having the potential for a water crisis in the near future. Gravitational satellites are different in that they don't take pictures, but rather measure the gravitational pull of the Earth, which can be affected by the presence of water. Using these satellites, NASA calculated the rate of water depletion from 2002-2016 and based their predictions off that data. Currently, more than 1.2 billion people lack access to clean water, but with these findings, it's possible that 500 million more may be at risk. Many experts are calling for cities around the world to start preparing for the eventuality of severe water shortages.
The Gamka Dam in Beufort WestThe Sunday Times
Outside of California and the southwestern United States, Americans have it pretty easy regarding water shortages. The global water crisis will hit us in a far different way than it will hit the third world. Of course, the economic implications will be far reaching, and anywhere facing economic tensions will naturally see an increase in violence, but the real issue facing the Western world won't be war. It'll be the mass migration necessitated by the violence and financial strife the water shortage will cause. People will be fleeing their homes and lining up along borders all over the world. Countries like Greece, Turkey, and Azerbaijan will have to deal with fleeing refugees at an unprecedented level, and barring a major shift in the way Europeans view immigration, these massive migrations could put an extreme amount of stress on governments to heavily secure their borders.
If the xenophobic rhetoric currently coming from both American and European leadership has a chance to manifest itself into policy, future migrants could face some of the worst human rights violations in modern history. When sterile terms like "instability" and "civil unrest" start appearing in the news, it's important to understand what they actually mean. The standoff between the Israeli military and the Palestinians in Gaza, while completely unrelated to the water shortage, paints a pretty good picture of what border clashes could look like in the near future.
Israelis open fire on Palestinians at the Gaza border
The question is quickly devolving from what we can do to prevent the water crisis to how we're going to survive it. We can't afford to ignore water scarcity in the same way in which we largely ignored climate change (which in turn exacerbated this crisis). Desalination is extremely expensive and while it has the potential to provide us with more drinkable water, it may not be the most reliable method. One interesting fact about the way we use our water is that 70% of the freshwater we use isn't for drinking, but rather for agriculture. Some scholars posit that by optimizing the way we irrigate our farms, more water could be conserved. Others point to population control as the solution, citing that worldwide demand for water will soon outstrip the supply.
A desalination plant in Perth, Australia
Both options seem untenable. The most realistic solution is to find a way to perform desalination in a less energy-intensive way. Perhaps Saudi Arabia's solar-powered plants will provide a the world with a sustainable model for creating clean water. Whatever the fix, we're at the point now where a single country's contributions are unlikely to shift the balance. It'll take a concerted worldwide effort to effectively combat the coming water crisis. Assuming this happens, and countries all over the world start implementing new and innovative desalination processes, the question will then become whether or not it's too little too late.