The magnetic field of the Earth is by far the best documented magnetic field of all known planets. Considerable progress has been made in our understanding of its characteristics and properties, thanks to the convergence of many different approaches and to the remarkable fact that surface rocks have quietly recorded much of its history. The usefulness of magnetic field charts for navigation and the dedication of a few individuals have also led to the patient construction of some of the longest series of quantitative observations in the history of science. More recently even more systematic observations have been made possible from space, leading to the possibility of observing the Earth's magnetic field in much more details than was previously possible. The progressive increase in computer power was also crucial, leading to advanced ways of handling and analyzing this considerable corpus of data. This possibility, together with the recent development of numerical simulations, has led to the development of a very active field in Earth science. In this paper, we make an attempt to provide an overview of where the scientific community currently stands in terms of observing, interpreting and understanding the past and present behavior of the so-called main magnetic field produced within the Earth's core. The various types of data are introduced and their specific properties explained. The way those data can be used to derive the time evolution of the core field, when this is possible, or statistical information, when no other option is available, is next described. Special care is taken to explain how information derived from each type of data can be patched together into a consistent description of how the core field has been behaving in the past. Interpretations of this behavior, from the shortest (1 yr) to the longest (virtually the age of the Earth) time scales are finally reviewed, underlining the respective roles of the magnetohydodynamics at work in the core, and of the slow dynamic evolution of the planet as a whole.
Hulot, G. Finlay, C. C. Constable, C. G. Olsen, N. Mandea, M.