Paleomagnetism (or palaeomagnetism in the United Kingdom) is the study of the record of the Earth's magnetic field in rocks, sediment, or archeological materials. Certain minerals in rocks lock-in a record of the direction and intensity of the magnetic field when they form. This record provides information on the past behavior of Earth's magnetic field and the past location of tectonic plates. The record of geomagnetic reversals preserved in volcanic and sedimentary rock sequences (magnetostratigraphy) provides a time-scale that is used as a geochronologic tool. Geophysicists who specialize in paleomagnetism are called paleomagnetists.
Paleomagnetists led the revival of the continental drift hypothesis and its transformation into plate tectonics. Apparent polar wander paths provided the first clear geophysical evidence for continental drift, while marine magnetic anomalies did the same for seafloor spreading. Paleomagnetism continues to extend the history of plate tectonics back in time and are applied to the movement of continental fragments, or terranes.
Paleomagnetism relied heavily on new developments in rock magnetism, which in turn has provided the foundation for new applications of magnetism. These include biomagnetism, magnetic fabrics (used as strain indicators in rocks and soils), and environmental magnetism.
As early as the 18th century, it was noticed that compass needles deviated near strongly magnetized outcrops. In 1797, Von Humboldt attributed this magnetization to lightning strikes (and lightning strikes do often magnetize surface rocks). In the 19th century studies of the direction of magnetization in rocks showed that some recent lavas were magnetized parallel to the Earth's magnetic field. Early in the 20th century, work by David, Brunhes and Mercanton showed that many rocks were magnetized antiparallel to the field. Japanese geophysicist Motonori Matuyama showed that the Earth's magnetic field reversed in the mid-Quaternary, a reversal now known as the Brunhes-Matuyama reversal.
The British physicist P.M.S. Blackett provided a major impetus to paleomagnetism by inventing a sensitive astatic magnetometer in 1956. His intent was to test his theory that the geomagnetic field was related to the Earth's rotation, a theory that he ultimately rejected; but the astatic magnetometer became the basic tool of paleomagnetism and led to a revival of the theory of continental drift. Alfred Wegener first proposed in 1915 that continents had once been joined together and had since moved apart. Although he produced an abundance of circumstantial evidence, his theory met with little acceptance for two reasons: (1) no mechanism for continental drift was known, and (2) there was no way to reconstruct the movements of the continents over time. Keith Runcorn and Edward A. Irving constructed apparent polar wander paths for Europe and North America. These curves diverged, but could be reconciled if it was assumed that the continents had been in contact up to 200 million years ago. This provided the first clear geophysical evidence for continental drift. Then in 1963, Morley, Vine and Matthews showed that marine magnetic anomalies provided evidence for seafloor spreading.