# Visualizing the time-dependence of the Earth's magnetic field

**This activity was selected for the Teaching Computation in the Sciences Using MATLAB Peer Reviewed Teaching Collection**

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

- Computational, Quantitative, and Scientific Accuracy
- Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
- Pedagogic Effectiveness
- Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
- Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see https://serc.carleton.edu/teaching_computation/materials/activity_review.html.

This page first made public: Nov 24, 2015

#### Summary

## Learning Goals

**spatial scales**, and on different

**temporal scales**. Students need to learn about the length-scales of the field itself (the difference between the very long-wavelength

**core**-generated field and the much shorter-wavelength

**crustal**field), they also need to learn about the relative contributions of the

**external**versus the

**internal**fields, and lastly, about

**diurnal**variations and longer-term

**secular**variations. Finally, students need to be exposed to the representation of the main field in the basis of

**spherical harmonics**. For the visualization of spherical harmonics, we developed a separate module. As to the visualization of the main field and its variations, this module serves to plot the

**International Geomagnetic Reference Field**(11 editions and counting), which has downloadable spherical harmonic coefficients. A Matlab program loads those coefficients and plot the field in the time-dependent rendition as shown in the animated gif that accompanies this module.

## Context for Use

**Freshman**(undeclared majors), which is the target audience for which this module has been developed. But we have also gone into more depth by using the materials for an upper-class course (

**Seniors**majoring in the geosciences) in Global Geophysics. There, the concepts of the

**Geocentric Axial Dipole**can be discussed in a geological context. Also, the presence of "

**westward drift**" is very noticeable in these graphs. And finally, having the students observe what happens to "flux patches" - best embodied by closed contour lines, leads to a theoretical discussion of the "

**frozen-flux**" hypothesis, which underlies much of geomagnetic research today. Understanding this, then, can lead to a discussion of the fundamental equations of Geophysical MagnetoHydroDynamics - in particular, the "

**magnetic induction equation**" which has two clearly identifiable terms, an

**advective**and a

**diffusive**one, with two end-member results (no advection - no diffusion) which are readily grasped by an undergraduate audience. Turn the field generating mechanism off, and

**Ohmic decay**ruins the field (on what time scale)? Focus on advection, and the attached graphs lead into an estimate of the velocity of the convective currents deep inside the Earth.

## Description and Teaching Materials

**
×
**

## Teaching Notes and Tips

Depending on the level of the students, the focus can be either on "looking" but also on "doing". Looking is easiest: we have shown Freshmen the animated gifs and asked them what the main variability of the main field is. What can be noticed on the maps? What are the main variations? On what time scale do they vary? What does the short time scale of main field variation teach us about the inner workings of the Earth? The main field is generated by convection currents in the outer core of the Earth. What is the time-scale of these currents? How do they compare to the time-scale of variations (convection-generated, also) of the mantle (which is much slower)? Finally, we ask the students why these variations are important - e.g. for navigation, but also for the wider implications of the Geocentric Axial Dipole hypothesis - that over geological time, the main field IS well represented by a simple dipole term. Note that the dipole terms have been removed from the attached animations: What we see is everything that is commonly attributed to the main field without the dipole terms. The software that generates the graphs can be adapted to also show the dipoles of course - in which case the maps become entirely uninteresting.

## Assessment

**geographic**and

**geomagnetic**

**coordinate**

**systems**. Often we ask students to pull out their iPhones and look at the magnetic

**compass**, which has two settings (geographic and geomagnetic) which illustrate precisely this difference. Students are asked to make linkages between these coordinate systems and the basic concepts of

**inclination**and

**declination**, and when we hand out actual compasses, we discuss how they can be adjusted to reflect the local declination at the site of where the compass is being used. Exercises then ask the students to discuss inclination and declination of a simple dipole, evaluate the strength of the field at the equator versus at the pole, calculating the decay time from the derivative coefficients that are tabulated in the IGRF files, and so on. Finally, the module here is a lead-in for the study of simple

**magnetic**

**anomalies**, i.e. dipoles buried at depth, which are of paramount importance for exploring the shallow substructure e.g. in geoarcheology and the exploration of mineral resources.

## References and Resources