New insights solve 300-year-old problem: The dynamics of the Earth’s core

Scientists at the University of Leeds have solved a 300-year-old riddle about which direction the centre of the earth spins.

The Earth’s inner core, made up of solid iron, ‘superrotates’ in an eastward direction – meaning it spins faster than the rest of the planet – while the outer core, comprising mainly molten iron, spins westwards at a slower pace.

Although Edmund Halley – who also discovered the famous comet – showed the westward-drifting motion of the Earth’s geomagnetic field in 1692, it is the first time that scientists have been able to link the way the inner core spins to the behavior of the outer core. The planet behaves in this way because it is responding to the Earth’s geomagnetic field.

The findings, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, help scientists to interpret the dynamics of the core of the Earth, the source of our planet’s magnetic field.

In the last few decades, seismometers measuring earthquakes travelling through the Earth’s core have identified an eastwards, or superrotation of the solid inner core, relative to Earth’s surface.

“The link is simply explained in terms of equal and opposite action”, explains Dr Philip Livermore, of the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds. “The magnetic field pushes eastwards on the inner core, causing it to spin faster than the Earth, but it also pushes in the opposite direction in the liquid outer core, which creates a westward motion.”

The solid iron inner core is about the size of the Moon. It is surrounded by the liquid outer core, an iron alloy, whose convection-driven movement generates the geomagnetic field.

The fact that the Earth’s internal magnetic field changes slowly, over a timescale of decades, means that the electromagnetic force responsible for pushing the inner and outer cores will itself change over time. This may explain fluctuations in the predominantly eastwards rotation of the inner core, a phenomenon reported for the last 50 years by Tkalčić et al. in a recent study published in Nature Geoscience.

Other previous research based on archeological artefacts and rocks, with ages of hundreds to thousands of years, suggests that the drift direction has not always been westwards: some periods of eastwards motion may have occurred in the last 3,000 years. Viewed within the conclusions of the new model, this suggests that the inner core may have undergone a westwards rotation in such periods.

The authors used a model of the Earth’s core which was run on the giant super-computer Monte Rosa, part of the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre in Lugano, Switzerland. Using a new method, they were able to simulate the Earth’s core with an accuracy about 100 times better than other models.

Earth’s iron core is surprisingly weak, Stanford researchers say

The massive ball of iron sitting at the center of Earth is not quite as “rock-solid” as has been thought, say two Stanford mineral physicists. By conducting experiments that simulate the immense pressures deep in the planet’s interior, the researchers determined that iron in Earth’s inner core is only about 40 percent as strong as previous studies estimated.

This is the first time scientists have been able to experimentally measure the effect of such intense pressure – as high as 3 million times the pressure Earth’s atmosphere exerts at sea level – in a laboratory. A paper presenting the results of their study is available online in Nature Geoscience.

“The strength of iron under these extreme pressures is startlingly weak,” said Arianna Gleason, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, and lead author of the paper. Wendy Mao, an assistant professor in the department, is the co-author.

“This strength measurement can help us understand how the core deforms over long time scales, which influences how we think about Earth’s evolution and planetary evolution in general,” Gleason said.

Until now, almost all of what is known about Earth’s inner core came from studies tracking seismic waves as they travel from the surface of the planet through the interior. Those studies have shown that the travel time through the inner core isn’t the same in every direction, indicating that the inner core itself is not uniform. Over time and subjected to great pressure, the core has developed a sort of fabric as grains of iron elongate and align lengthwise in parallel formations.

The ease and speed with which iron grains in the inner core can deform and align would have influenced the evolution of the early Earth and development of the geomagnetic field. The field is generated by the circulation of liquid iron in the outer core around the solid inner core and shields Earth from the full intensity of solar radiation. Without the geomagnetic field, life – at least as we know it – would not be possible on Earth.

“The development of the inner core would certainly have some effect on the geomagnetic field, but just what effect and the magnitude of the effect, we can’t say,” said Mao. “That is very speculative.”

Gleason and Mao conducted their experiments using a diamond anvil cell – a device that can exert immense pressure on tiny samples clenched between two diamonds. They subjected minute amounts of pure iron to pressures between 200 and 300 gigapascals (equivalent to the pressure of 2 million to 3 million Earth atmospheres). Previous experimental studies were conducted in the range of only 10 gigapascals.

“We really pushed the limit here in terms of experimental conditions,” Gleason said. “Pioneering advancements in pressure-generation techniques and improvements in detector sensitivity, for example, used at large X-ray synchrotron facilities, such as Argonne National Lab, have allowed us to make these new measurements.”

In addition to intense pressures, the inner core also has extreme temperatures. The boundary between the inner and outer core has temperatures comparable to the surface of the sun. Simultaneously simulating both the pressure and temperature at the inner core isn’t yet possible in the laboratory, though Gleason and Mao are working on that for future studies. (For this study, Gleason mathematically extrapolated from their pressure data to factor in the effect of temperature.)

Gleason and Mao expect their findings will help other researchers set more realistic variables for conducting their own experiments.

“People modeling the inner core haven’t had many experimental constraints, because it’s so difficult to make measurements under those conditions,” Mao said. “There really weren’t constraints on how strong the core was, so this is really a fundamental new constraint.”

Magnetic field, mantle convection and tectonics

On a time scale of tens to hundreds of millions of years, the geomagnetic field may be influenced by currents in the mantle. The frequent polarity reversals of Earth’s magnetic field can also be connected with processes in the mantle. These are the research results presented by a group of geoscientists in the new advance edition of “Nature Geoscience” on Sunday, July 29th. The results show how the rapid processes in the outer core, which flows at rates of up to about one millimeter per second, are coupled with the processes in the mantle, which occur more in the velocity range of centimeters per year.

The international group of scientists led by A. Biggin of the University of Liverpool included members of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, the IPGP Paris, the universities of Oslo and Utrecht, and other partners.

It is known that the Earth’s magnetic field is produced by convection currents of an electrically conducting iron-nickel alloyin the liquid core, about 3,000 kilometers below the earth’s surface. The geomagnetic field is highly variable, there are changes in Earth’s magnetic field on a multitude of spatial and temporal scales. Above the liquid outer core is the mantle, the rock in which behaves plastically deformable due to the intense heat and high pressure. At the boundary between Earth’s core and mantle at 2900 km depth there is an intense heat exchange, which is on the one hand directed from the Earth’s core into the mantle. On the other hand, processes within Earth’s mantle in turn also affect the heat flow. The interesting question is how the much slower flow in the solid mantle influences the heat flow and its spatial distribution at the core-mantle boundary, and how this will affect the Earth’s magnetic field which is produced due to the much faster currents in the Earth’s core.

Key variable heat transfer

“The key variable is the heat flow. A cooler mantle accelerates the flow of heat from the hot core of the Earth, and in this way alters the also heat-driven convection in the Earth’s core”, said Bernhard Steinberger of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. “Ocean floor sinking into the mantle due to tectonic processes can lead to cooling in the mantle. They cause at these sites an increased heat flow into the cooler parts, namely until they have been heated to the ambient temperature.” That might take several hundred million years, however.

Conversely, the hot core of the Earth leads to the ascent of heated rocks in form of large bubbles, so-called mantle plumes that separate from the core-mantle boundary and make their way up to the surface of the earth. This is how Hawaii came into existence. This increases the local heat flux out of the earth’s core and in turn modifies the generator of the geomagnetic field.

Reversals of the magnetic field

In the Earth’s history, polarity reversals of the geomagnetic field are nothing extraordinary. The most recent took place only 780 000 years ago, geologically speaking a very short period of time. The research team was able to determine that in the period of 200 to 80 million years before present, reversals initially happened more often, namely up to ten times in hundred million years. “Surprisingly, these reversals stopped about 120 million years ago and were absent for nearly 40 million years,” explains GFZ scientist Sachs. Scientists presume that the reason for this is a concurrent reorientation of the whole mantle and crust with a shift in the geographic and magnetic poles of about 30°. Known as “true polar wander”, thisprocess is caused by a change in density distribution in the mantle. If it increases the heat flux in equatorial regions, it would presumably lead to more frequent field reversals, if it decreases it, the field reversal might not occur.

Looking to the future

According to current knowledge, therefore, an influence of plate tectonics and mantle convection on the Earth’s magnetic field seems quite possible. The article also shows, however, that further research is still needed for a better understanding of these relationships. In particular, more episodes of “true polar wander” should be derived from paleomagnetic data, and it should be determined whether these are usually associated with an altered behavior of the magnetic field (e.g. frequency of field reversal). Also, future models for the generation of the geomagnetic field should investigate the influence of the spatial and temporal variation of the heat flux at the core-mantle boundary in more detail.