Paleopocalypse! Ancient Relic Points to a Turning Point in Earth’s History 42,000 Years Ago

Aurora Lights

This dramatic paleoclimate change – which was hallmarked with widespread auroras – could help explain other evolutionary mysteries, like the extinction of Neanderthals.

Just like in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer was 42.

The temporary breakdown of Earth’s magnetic field 42,000 years ago sparked major climate shifts that led to global environmental change and mass extinctions, a new international study co-led by UNSW Sydney and the South Australian Museum shows.

This dramatic turning point in Earth’s history – laced with electrical storms, widespread auroras, and cosmic radiation – was triggered by the reversal of Earth’s magnetic poles and changing solar winds.

The researchers dubbed this danger period the ‘Adams Transitional Geomagnetic Event’, or ‘Adams Event’ for short – a tribute to science fiction writer Douglas Adams, who wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that ‘42’ was the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

The findings were published on February 19, 2021, in the Journal Science.

Using an ancient kauri tree log from Ngawha, New Zealand, scientists have dated the timing and environmental impacts of the last magnetic pole switch.. Credit: Nelson Parker

“For the first time ever, we have been able to precisely date the timing and environmental impacts of the last magnetic pole switch,” says Chris Turney, a professor at UNSW Science and co-lead author of the study.

“The findings were made possible with ancient New Zealand kauri trees, which have been preserved in sediments for over 40,000 years.

“Using the ancient trees we could measure, and date, the spike in atmospheric radiocarbon levels caused by the collapse of Earth’s magnetic field.”

While scientists already knew the magnetic poles temporarily flipped around 41-42,000 years ago (known as the ‘Laschamps Excursion’), they didn’t know exactly how it impacted life on Earth – if at all.

But the researchers were able to create a detailed timescale of how Earth’s atmosphere changed over this time by analyzing rings on the ancient kauri trees.

“The kauri trees are like the Rosetta Stone, helping us tie together records of environmental change in caves, ice cores and peat bogs around the world,” says co-lead Professor Alan Cooper, Honorary Researcher at the South Australian Museum.

The researchers compared the newly-created timescale with records from sites across the Pacific and used it in global climate modeling, finding that the growth of ice sheets and glaciers over North America and large shifts in major wind belts and tropical storm systems could be traced back to the Adams Event.

One of their first clues was that megafauna across mainland Australia and Tasmania went through simultaneous extinctions 42,000 years ago.

“This had never seemed right, because it was long after Aboriginal people arrived, but around the same time that the Australian environment shifted to the current arid state,” says Prof. Cooper.

The paper suggests that the Adams Event could explain a lot of other evolutionary mysteries, like the extinction of Neandertals and the sudden widespread appearance of figurative art in caves around the world.

“It’s the most surprising and important discovery I’ve ever been involved in,” says Prof. Cooper.

Watch as Stephen Fry brings to life the story of the ‘Adams event’. Credit: UNSW Sydney.

The perfect (cosmic) storm

The magnetic north pole – that is, the direction a compass needle points to – doesn’t have a fixed location. It usually wobbles close to the North Pole (the northern-most point of Earth’s axis) over time due to dynamic movements within the Earth’s core, just like the magnetic south pole.

Sometimes, for reasons that aren’t clear, the magnetic poles’ movements can be more drastic. Around 41,000-42,000 years ago they swapped places entirely.

“The Laschamps Excursion was the last time the magnetic poles flipped,” says Prof. Turney. “They swapped places for about 800 years before changing their minds and swapping back again.”

Until now, scientific research has focused on changes that happened while the magnetic poles were reversed, when the magnetic field was weakened to about 28 percent of its present-day strength.

But according to the team’s findings, the most dramatic part was the lead-up to the reversal, when the poles were migrating across the Earth.

“Earth’s magnetic field dropped to only 0-6 percent strength during the Adams Event,” says Prof. Turney. “We essentially had no magnetic field at all – our cosmic radiation shield was totally gone.”

During the magnetic field breakdown, the Sun experienced several ‘Grand Solar Minima’ (GSM), long-term periods of quiet solar activity.

Even though a GSM means less activity on the Sun’s surface, the weakening of its magnetic field can mean more space weather – like solar flares and galactic cosmic rays – could head Earth’s way.

“Unfiltered radiation from space ripped apart air particles in Earth’s atmosphere, separating electrons and emitting light – a process called ionization,” says Prof. Turney. “The ionized air ‘fried’ the Ozone layer, triggering a ripple of climate change across the globe.”

From auroras to lightning storms, the sky would have put on quite a show during the Adams Event.

Into the caves

Dazzling light shows would have been frequent in the sky during the Adams Event.

Aurora borealis and aurora australis, also known as the northern and southern lights, are caused by solar winds hitting the Earth’s atmosphere. Usually confined to the polar northern and southern parts of the globe, the colorful sights would have been widespread during the breakdown of Earth’s magnetic field.

“Early humans around the world would have seen amazing auroras, shimmering veils, and sheets across the sky,” says Prof. Cooper.

Ionized air – which is a great conductor for electricity – would have also increased the frequency of electrical storms.

“It must have seemed like the end of days,” says Prof. Cooper.

The researchers theorize that the dramatic environmental changes may have caused early humans to seek more shelter. This could explain the sudden appearance of cave art around the world roughly 42,000 years ago.

“We think that the sharp increases in UV levels, particularly during solar flares, would suddenly make caves very valuable shelters,” says Prof. Cooper. “The common cave art motif of red ochre handprints may signal it was being used as sunscreen, a technique still used today by some groups.

“The amazing images created in the caves during this time have been preserved, while other art out in open areas has since eroded, making it appear that art suddenly starts 42,000 years ago.”

The centre of this cave art from El Castillo Cave in Spain is believed to be almost 42,000 years old – the same age as the Adams Event. Credit: Paul Pettitt, courtesy Gobierno de Cantabria

Uncovering ancient clues

These findings come two years after a particularly important ancient kauri tree was uncovered at Ngawha, Northland.

The massive tree – with a trunk spanning over two and a half meters – was alive during the Laschamps.

“Like other entombed kauri logs, the wood of the Ngawha tree is so well preserved that the bark is still attached,” says UNSW’s Dr. Jonathan Palmer, a specialist in dating tree-rings (dendrochronology). Dr. Palmer studied cross-sections of the trees at UNSW Science’s Chronos 14Carbon-Cycle Facility.

Using radiocarbon dating – a technique to date ancient relics or events – the team tracked the changes in radiocarbon levels during the magnetic pole reversal. This data was charted alongside the trees’ annual growth rings, which acts as an accurate, natural timestamp.

The new timescale helped reveal the picture of this dramatic period in Earth’s history. The team were able to reconstruct the chain of environmental and extinction events using climate modeling.

“The more we looked at the data, the more everything pointed to 42,” says Prof. Turney. “It was uncanny.

“Douglas Adams was clearly on to something, after all.”

The ancient kauri trees were key to the findings, explain Prof. Chris Turney and Prof. Alan Cooper. Credit: UNSW Sydney

An accelerant like no other

While the magnetic poles often wander, some scientists are concerned about the current rapid movement of the north magnetic pole across the Northern Hemisphere.

“This speed – alongside the weakening of Earth’s magnetic field by around nine percent in the past 170 years – could indicate an upcoming reversal,” says Prof. Cooper.

“If a similar event happened today, the consequences would be huge for modern society. Incoming cosmic radiation would destroy our electric power grids and satellite networks.”

Prof. Turney says the human-induced climate crisis is catastrophic enough without throwing major solar changes or a pole reversal in the mix.

“Our atmosphere is already filled with carbon at levels never seen by humanity before,” he says. “A magnetic pole reversal or extreme change in Sun activity would be unprecedented climate change accelerants.

“We urgently need to get carbon emissions down before such a random event happens again.”

For more on this research:

Reference: “A global environmental crisis 42,000 years ago” by Alan Cooper, Chris S. M. Turney, Jonathan Palmer, Alan Hogg, Matt McGlone, Janet Wilmshurst, Andrew M. Lorrey, Timothy J. Heaton, James M. Russell, Ken McCracken, Julien G. Anet, Eugene Rozanov, Marina Friedel, Ivo Suter, Thomas Peter, Raimund Muscheler, Florian Adolphi, Anthony Dosseto, J. Tyler Faith, Pavla Fenwick, Christopher J. Fogwill, Konrad Hughen, Mathew Lipson, Jiabo Liu, Norbert Nowaczyk, Eleanor Rainsley, Christopher Bronk Ramsey, Paolo Sebastianelli, Yassine Souilmi, Janelle Stevenson, Zoë Thomas, Raymond Tobler and Roland Zech, 19 February 2021, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb8677

This work was made possible by funding from an Australian Research Council Discovery Project Grant, support from Ngapuhi iwi and Top Energy, the University of Waikato Radiocarbon Laboratory, and many other national and international partners.


View Comments

  • This article is almost identical to the two previous articles published on scitechdaily! I don't see any new 'facts' being presented, just the same wild speculations. Surely you can find other interesting science news, instead of repeating stories, as you seem to be doing lately.

    Something that the researchers don't seem to appreciate is that even high correlation doesn't establish causation. Anecdotal events might just be coincidence.

    Cooper claimed, "One of their first clues was that megafauna across mainland Australia and Tasmania went through simultaneous extinctions 42,000 years ago.
    This had never seemed right, because it was long after Aboriginal people arrived, but around the same time that the Australian environment shifted to the current arid state,”. This is not very convincing because no reasonable person would expect immediate extinction unless humans brought a disease with them. One would expect the megafauna population to decrease, while the human population increased, until a tipping point was reached when there was no longer animal populations large enough to keep breeding. Why didn't megafauna elsewhere in the world become extinct at the same time? For that matter, why didn't ALL fauna, except cave troglodytes, decrease around the whole world at that time?

    How do the authors know that aurora increased? Why should aurora increase when the solar wind is no longer concentrated at the poles? Why should electrical storms increase when increased levels of ions in the atmosphere could be expected to bleed off charges in clouds, not allowing them to reach voltages high enough to reach the ground? While high-energy particles may have ionized ozone (along with oxygen and nitrogen) in the stratosphere, that doesn't preclude the possibility of ozone forming in the troposphere. The Kauri tree provided a basis for dating the magnetic reversal. Did the tree rings show any evidence of the tree experiencing stress from high-energy radiation or UV light?

    The statement, “We urgently need to get carbon emissions down before such a random event happens again.” is a non sequitur. This is the behavior of a 'scientist' that is the opposite of the ideal of a "dispassionate observer."

    I think that it shows poor editorial judgment to publish summaries of such speculative research. It is compounded by repeating the mistake not once, but twice!

    The claims made in these three articles remind me of the remark by Mark Twain:
    "There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact."

    • These climate change deniers need to get their ignorant anti-scientific treason-supporting lies the hell out of here. Take your phony lunatic conspiracies someplace else. This website is for SCIENCE- not for uneducated nazis who can't even count a vote when the damn computer already counted. I mean, too dumb to use a calculator... that's who these science-deniers are.

  • The ionized air, the lightening, was the initiator of cave art. Recall Tesla was reputed to have been born in the strongest lightening storm of his time.
    IF we were to again experience described above, we would of course, start over, exactly as the sea traders that settled in Harappa did. Create a planned community of equality with the highest level of sanitation possible, pursue sea trade, produce goods, hopefully with a different ending than what we have arrived at today.

    • katesisco
      Just how strong does a lightning storm have to be to create a genius? How does one measure the strength of a storm? Is it how long it lasts that is the key, or is it how many lightning strikes there are? Assuming it is the number of lightning discharges, do cloud-to-cloud discharges count, or only the ones that make it to the ground? Is it possible to trade a large number of lightning discharges for a smaller number of very powerful strikes? Do 'elves' and 'sprites' play a role, or is it only simple lightning that is important? How many geniuses will be born? Will all those born during a storm of sufficient strength be geniuses? How close do they have to be to the storm? What happens if a child is conceived during one of these 'unprecedented storms?' If the storm is strong enough, is 'immaculate conception' possible?

      So many questions, so little time!

  • Its really funny how every unexplained event in 2021 is due to CARBON EMISSONS. fact: carbon emissions didn't EXIST 42,000 years ago so the tree huggers can't use that excuse. FACT: the sun emits several flares several times a year this is what us called solar flares...has nothing to do with Global warming. FACT: THE PLANET DOESNT CARE IF YOU USE GAS OR SOLAR ENERGY. ITS A PLANET IT DOES WHAT IT WANTS WHEN IT WANTS. Whats next are the The Quack Scientists going to say that reverse poles cause Covid too?? Fake science is more harmful when it is supported by quacks and dropouts. Please keep your fake science about global warming and your fake hypothesis to yourselves. Go wear your masks and stop thinking that you have answers for things that have been around before humans.

    • Lmfao all the idiots crying fake news and what not is just to funny. Please entertain me more, next you will probably say the world is flat. XD

      • I am convinced that the Earth is approximately spherical. However, unless you can articulate just why you also believe that, then you are no better than the people who claim that the Earth is flat. Your virtue signaling doesn't mean that you are superior. It just means that you too hold a belief that you can't defend.

        Next time, try writing something that actually demonstrates that you are capable of logically critiquing a position instead of just insulting those you disagree with.

    • These climate change deniers need to get their ignorant anti-scientific treason-supporting lies the hell out of here. Take your phony lunatic conspiracies someplace else. This website is for SCIENCE- not for uneducated nazis who can't even count a vote when the damn computer already counted. I mean, too dumb to use a calculator... that's who these science-deniers are.

  • I happen to agree with the other various dissenters of this article, bring the proof of facts to the article, & no more speculation, or imaginary drones making honey, only for the Queen Bee. COVID-19, has nothing to do with this article, so for you those of you who have joined the planetary saviours club, I bid you to please keep your traps shut, we were only guessing at your lower iq, no need to actually prove it), ... & only bring to the article, actual proof of facts based, on factual historical data, not some dreamed up number, of 42, or of genius people being born during a local lightning storm, ... state, & cite the test experiments, & how many have been formed over the period of time tested, ... As scientists, (observers, of the physical elemental properties), ... please keep your imaginations in check, ... jotting down your personal idiocies, only serves to add trash to a burning flame, while your more than necessary amount of hot air expelled from your lungs (from reading this out loud), ... only serves to inform the rest of us that you are not taking the proper amount of your medications, ... again, ... which makes the flames only use up more oxygen, ...
    I’d truly, like to meet the scientist, (using the term quite loosely for anyone that thinks that it is simply ok, to dream up facts), ... instead of investigating any “plausible” theories of seeing the Neanderthals, dropping like chickens in a henhouse barn where the ventilation vents got stuck shut during the hottest afternoon in a month of Thursday’s, unless they stumbled into a cave, (or were the caves on the other side of the Moose, ... tracks?), ... the thinking that only the other species of mankind, was able to seek out shelter in caves, whereas the Neanderthals could not comprehend such ideals, ... lends credence to the certain statuses of someone holding their breath for far too long, because why would you be choking yourself, (if you were not inbred), ... the plausibility of this “author” being an actual educated journalist, seems to be even more comical, the more times it is put online, in electronic ink, ...

  • I was going to say exactly what has just been said. To use the AGW in this article blew it for me. Just like the Medieval Warming Period when temperatures rose around the world some two degrees in places. There was no manmade carbon in the air then.
    This lunacy has been going in quite enough. The Earth has gone through a hell of a lot more than a few hot summers and survived. We don't need to hand our energy control over to solar panels and windmills. It's all a contradiction anyway....what are those windmills made of? Coal fired steel.
    The UN, it's scientists, Al Gore (who isn't a scientist and actually flunked natural science at Harvard) and Greta Thunberg (who also isn't a scientist and is so busy reading the pages given to her to read hardly how's to school anymore anyway) can all go live in a cave with no electricity, no mobile phones, cooking their meals over an open fire and wearing animal furs they hunted with hand made Spears. It's only then they might seem more realistic.

    • The tone of your screed makes me think that you are protesting politics, not science.

      • Unfortunately, science today is too influenced by politics. The ideal of a scientist is an objective, 'disinterested' observer. If one holds strong emotional positions on a topic, then it is all too easy to have conclusions, and even observations, colored by those viewpoints. If you have not done so, I suggest reading T. C. Chamberlain's "Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses" to see how a first-rate scientist works.

    • These climate change deniers need to get their ignorant anti-scientific treason-supporting lies the hell out of here. Take your phony lunatic conspiracies someplace else. This website is for SCIENCE- not for uneducated nazis who can't even count a vote when the damn computer already counted. I mean, too dumb to use a calculator... that's who these science-deniers are.

      • DC
        Did you forget that you had already submitted your fact-free opinion? Remember the principle of "One man, one vote." You have not added anything to your original (In the sense of timing, not creativity.) rant.

        Next time, why don't you say something that might convince readers that you actually understand what science is and how it works? Or, are you just repeating what you have read from someone who is a lot smarter?

  • Look, here's the bottom line humans seem to have a minor problem in reconciling the enviroment: you, the Al Gore's, that stupid little Norwegee nutter, Greta and every other consumer/waste breeder, academics, you all seem to think that the planet needs human intervention to the rescue, hah, millions of climate 'Belibers', all jokers!
    The earth could care one carbon granule what any grand effort attempts to fix. The planet self regulates it's well being as God designed it to work.
    Nothing will stop a natural correction to the current climate direction. If humans can't hang for the ride, oh well, "POOF", or KABOOM, WOOSH or even "FOOMPH" in a gigantic ball of flame... and now you're all dust!

    • So, your answer to obvious pollution is that a supernatural being will decide our fate... and may choose to end us with a ball of flame.
      Frankly, your mindset disturbs me... though it is quite colorful.

      • If Physicist are that smart, then why can't go back 12 seconds before Big Bang. I mean they went back 15 billion years.The Universe is not based on Physics. There are other factors at work. And all this control of greenhouse and carbon emissions and whatnot is useless because if the magnetic poles tilt for no reason and tilt back for still no reason as per Physicists, and that's what brings doomsday, then what's the fuss. Humans play are a tiny part in the great game of the one and only GOD. And I'm not talking about no supernatural being somewhere with a magic wand but the Intelligence that is the universe and the Intellect IT has to play ITS part in the great game. Humans should worry about destroying the planetary life with their " We are the best species" Retoric.Infact humans are the best only in destroying themselves and the innocent animal and plant etc kingdoms as well which is why God Earth punishes by tilting magnetic poles for no reason at all which then triggers the doomsday for 800 years and the it's back to the good old days for no reason at all.And this scenario is according to Physicists who can't even explain the small bang which is God Sun which has been visible to all and Sundry for eternity, as to how in Physics name does it keep burning and burning and's been 15 billion years for crying out loud....This small bang should get a tiny bit smaller or dimmer...I mean the way the sun is behaving is like it's gonna burn forever...but that can't be right because Physics don't allow that....not to mention what Chemistry and Biology and Maths and of course PHILOSOPHY allow or have a say in this great game of God 😁

    • These climate change deniers need to get their ignorant anti-scientific treason-supporting lies the hell out of here. Take your phony lunatic conspiracies someplace else. This website is for SCIENCE- not for uneducated nazis who can't even count a vote when the damn computer already counted. I mean, too dumb to use a calculator... that's who these science-deniers are.

      • DC
        Three times you cut and pasted the same vitriol. I give you an F- for originality.

        If that is the best you can do, you are liable to give readers the impression you don't really know what you are talking about, and have to resort to mindless insults.

        It is interesting how many left-hand thread wingnuts are attracted to science websites and leave the impression that they couldn't describe the Scientific Method if their lives depended on it.

  • I thought I was going to get through an archeological article without a reference to climate change for once. Wrong. I agree we can be much more responsible with our environment. I think we should be more concerned with developing countries before we cripple our economy. We are perhaps the cleanest of the developed countries. Let's get china and India up to speed. Then we can move forward. Stop expecting America to sacrifice alone. And carbon ? It's a basic element. It can't be made nor destroyed. Plants convert co2 into food with oxygen as a byproduct. Plant more trees. Lower taxes when a developer reclaims a blighted deserted property. Give incentives to clean our cities and stop spreading into our wooded areas.
    Interesting article by the way.

    • Beternu
      Are you so dense that you think that if you choose to use a word that many find offensive, and simply leave out a letter, that people won't figure out what the word is and still find it offensive?

      It seems that you have described yourself! How sad that you don't even realize you are what you said.

  • Dark subject, many possibly unrelated events all together into a semblance of order all the talk about something we know very little of and projections of events that may have happened. Therefore, an emotion charged segue to climate change is in order and we must all curb our carbon emissions or we will die very soon. Where have I heard this before?

  • I want a copy of all comments on this article. . . Please send to J. Anthony Vergona. . . . . Thank you! '(In advance) Rickman DeVito

University of New South Wales

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