No consensus has been reached so far on the properties of the geomagnetic field during reversals or on the main features that might reveal its dynamics. A main characteristic of the reversing field is a large decrease in the axial dipole and the dominant role of non-dipole components1, 2, 3. Other features strongly depend on whether they are derived from sedimentary or volcanic records. Only thermal remanent magnetization of lava flows can capture faithful records of a rapidly varying non-dipole field, but, because of episodic volcanic activity, sequences of overlying flows yield incomplete records. Here we show that the ten most detailed volcanic records of reversals can be matched in a very satisfactory way, under the assumption of a common duration, revealing common dynamical characteristics. We infer that the reversal process has remained unchanged, with the same time constants and durations, at least since 180 million years ago. We propose that the reversing field is characterized by three successive phases: a precursory event, a 180° polarity switch and a rebound. The first and third phases reflect the emergence of the non-dipole field with large-amplitude secular variation. They are rarely both recorded at the same site owing to the rapidly changing field geometry and last for less than 2,500 years. The actual transit between the two polarities does not last longer than 1,000 years and might therefore result from mechanisms other than those governing normal secular variation. Such changes are too brief to be accurately recorded by most sediments.
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