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Further Understanding of Geomagnetism

The Earth's magnetic field is described by seven parameters. These are declination (D), inclination (I), horizontal intensity (H), vertical intensity (Z), total intensity (F) and the north (X) and east (Y) components of the horizontal intensity. By convention, declination is considered positive when measured east of north, inclination and vertical intensity positive down, X positive north, and Y positive east. The magnetic field observed on Earth is constantly changing.

diagram of the magnetic elements
picture of the sun-earth magnetic field

The geomagnetic field measured at any point on the Earth's surface is a combination of several magnetic fields generated by various sources. These fields are superimposed on and interact with each other. More than 90% of the field measured is generated INTERNAL to the planet in the Earth's outer core. This portion of the geomagnetic field is often referred to as the Main Field. The Main Field varies slowly in time and can be described by Mathematical Models such as the International Geomagnetic Reference Field (IGRF) and World Magnetic Model (WMM). The Main Field creates a cavity in interplanetary space called the magnetosphere, where the Earth's magnetic field dominates in the magnetic field of the solar wind.

The magnetosphere is shaped somewhat like a comet in response to the dynamic pressure of the solar wind. It is compressed on the side toward the sun to about 10 Earth radii and is extended tail-like on the side away from the sun to more than 100 Earth radii. The magnetosphere deflects the flow of most solar wind particles around the Earth, while the geomagnetic field lines guide charged particle motion within the magnetosphere.

The differential flow of ions and electrons inside the magnetosphere and in the ionosphere form current systems, which cause variations in the intensity of the Earth's magnetic field. These EXTERNAL currents in the ionized upper atmosphere and magnetosphere vary on a much shorter time scale than the INTERNAL Main Field and may create magnetic fields as large as 10% of the Main Field.

It is the Main Field component that is modeled by the International Geomagnetic Reference Field (IGRF) and World Magnetic Model (WMM). Other important sources are the fields arising from electrical currents flowing in the ionized upper atmosphere, and the fields induced by currents flowing within the Earth's crust. The Main field component varies slowly in time and can be grossly described as that of a bar magnet with north and south poles deep inside the Earth and magnetic field lines that extend well out into space. The Earth's magnetic field varies both in space and time.

There are several good sites on the web providing information on Earth's geomagnetic field. Some of the sites we think are worth a visit include our own Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, Scientific American's Ask the Experts, the Geological Survey of Canada, and the U.S. Geological Survey. The AGU site includes several articles from scientists.