About 42,000 years ago, Earth was beset with oddness. Its magnetic field collapsed. Ice sheets surged across North America, Australasia and the Andes. Wind belts shifted across the Pacific and Southern Oceans. Prolonged drought hit Australia; that continent’s biggest mammals went extinct. Humans took to caves to make ochre-color art. Neanderthals died off for good.
Through it all, one giant kauri tree stood tall — until, after nearly two millenniums, it died and fell in a swamp, where the chemical records embedded in its flesh were immaculately preserved. That tree, unearthed a few years ago near Ngawha Springs in northern New Zealand, finally allowed researchers to fit a tight timeline to what before had seemed like an intriguing but only vaguely correlated series of events. What if, the researchers posited, the crash of the magnetic field spawned the climatic changes of that era? And to think that the Ngawha kauri tree had borne witness to the whole thing. “It must have seemed like the end of days,” said Chris S.M. Turney, a geoscientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and part of a large team that described the findings in a study published in Science. “And this tree lived through all that. Which is incredible, really.” Scientists across disciplines said the kauri data were a dazzling addition to the radiocarbon canon and were long awaited.
“For a radiocarbon person, the kauri records are just amazing,” said Luke C. Skinner, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the study. He said the fossil kauri trees were the main way for scientists to get at radiocarbon information from so long ago.
The tree lived through a lengthy disintegration of the magnetic field, a period known as the Laschamp excursion, when the magnetic poles attempted unsuccessfully to switch places. As a result, Dr. Turney and his co-authors were able to use the new data to describe more precisely when that excursion happened and trace what else was going on, including the bizarre climate and extinctions.
Were all those peculiar climatic, biological and archaeological phenomena 42,000 years ago linked to the wasted magnetic field? Had its collapse altered the course of life on Earth? And what about other disturbances of the magnetic field, including that time 780,000 years ago when the magnetic poles actually did switch places? The simulations suggest that the weakened magnetic field caused some of the climatic changes of 42,000 years ago, and that those changes may have had wider impacts: prompting the extinction of many large mammals in Australia, hastening the end of the Neanderthals, and perhaps giving rise to cave art as humans hid for long periods to avoid skin-damaging ultraviolet rays, the authors proposed. In fact, the effects were so striking that the researchers have given a new name to the years leading up to the middle of the Laschamp excursion. They call it the Adams Transitional Geomagnetic Event. The new name is a homage to the British humorist Douglas Adams, author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. It is also a nod to Adams’s famous line that “the answer to life, the universe and everything” is 42 — which Dr. Turney said reminded him of the timing of the magnetic episode 42,000 years ago.
Alanna Mitchell is a reporter with NYT
The New York Times