Earth’s magnetic field could flip within a human lifetime

Left to right, Biaggio Giaccio, Gianluca Sotilli, Courtney Sprain and Sebastien Nomade sitting next to an outcrop in the Sulmona basin of the Apennines that contains the Matuyama-Brunhes magnetic reversal. A layer of volcanic ash interbedded with the lake sediments can be seen above their heads. -  Paul Renne, UC Berkeley
Left to right, Biaggio Giaccio, Gianluca Sotilli, Courtney Sprain and Sebastien Nomade sitting next to an outcrop in the Sulmona basin of the Apennines that contains the Matuyama-Brunhes magnetic reversal. A layer of volcanic ash interbedded with the lake sediments can be seen above their heads. – Paul Renne, UC Berkeley

Imagine the world waking up one morning to discover that all compasses pointed south instead of north.

It’s not as bizarre as it sounds. Earth’s magnetic field has flipped – though not overnight – many times throughout the planet’s history. Its dipole magnetic field, like that of a bar magnet, remains about the same intensity for thousands to millions of years, but for incompletely known reasons it occasionally weakens and, presumably over a few thousand years, reverses direction.

Now, a new study by a team of scientists from Italy, France, Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrates that the last magnetic reversal 786,000 years ago actually happened very quickly, in less than 100 years – roughly a human lifetime.

“It’s amazing how rapidly we see that reversal,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Courtney Sprain. “The paleomagnetic data are very well done. This is one of the best records we have so far of what happens during a reversal and how quickly these reversals can happen.”

Sprain and Paul Renne, director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center and a UC Berkeley professor-in- residence of earth and planetary science, are coauthors of the study, which will be published in the November issue of Geophysical Journal International and is now available online.

Flip could affect electrical grid, cancer rates

The discovery comes as new evidence indicates that the intensity of Earth’s magnetic field is decreasing 10 times faster than normal, leading some geophysicists to predict a reversal within a few thousand years.

Though a magnetic reversal is a major planet-wide event driven by convection in Earth’s iron core, there are no documented catastrophes associated with past reversals, despite much searching in the geologic and biologic record. Today, however, such a reversal could potentially wreak havoc with our electrical grid, generating currents that might take it down.

And since Earth’s magnetic field protects life from energetic particles from the sun and cosmic rays, both of which can cause genetic mutations, a weakening or temporary loss of the field before a permanent reversal could increase cancer rates. The danger to life would be even greater if flips were preceded by long periods of unstable magnetic behavior.

“We should be thinking more about what the biologic effects would be,” Renne said.

Dating ash deposits from windward volcanoes

The new finding is based on measurements of the magnetic field alignment in layers of ancient lake sediments now exposed in the Sulmona basin of the Apennine Mountains east of Rome, Italy. The lake sediments are interbedded with ash layers erupted from the Roman volcanic province, a large area of volcanoes upwind of the former lake that includes periodically erupting volcanoes near Sabatini, Vesuvius and the Alban Hills. Italian researchers led by Leonardo Sagnotti of Rome’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology measured the magnetic field directions frozen into the sediments as they accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake.

Sprain and Renne used argon-argon dating, a method widely used to determine the ages of rocks, whether they’re thousands or billions of years old, to determine the age of ash layers above and below the sediment layer recording the last reversal. These dates were confirmed by their colleague and former UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Sebastien Nomade of the Laboratory of Environmental and Climate Sciences in Gif-Sur-Yvette, France.

Because the lake sediments were deposited at a high and steady rate over a 10,000-year period, the team was able to interpolate the date of the layer showing the magnetic reversal, called the Matuyama-Brunhes transition, at approximately 786,000 years ago. This date is far more precise than that from previous studies, which placed the reversal between 770,000 and 795,000 years ago.

“What’s incredible is that you go from reverse polarity to a field that is normal with essentially nothing in between, which means it had to have happened very quickly, probably in less than 100 years,” said Renne. “We don’t know whether the next reversal will occur as suddenly as this one did, but we also don’t know that it won’t.”

Unstable magnetic field preceded 180-degree flip

Whether or not the new finding spells trouble for modern civilization, it likely will help researchers understand how and why Earth’s magnetic field episodically reverses polarity, Renne said.

The magnetic record the Italian-led team obtained shows that the sudden 180-degree flip of the field was preceded by a period of instability that spanned more than 6,000 years. The instability included two intervals of low magnetic field strength that lasted about 2,000 years each. Rapid changes in field orientations may have occurred within the first interval of low strength. The full magnetic polarity reversal – that is, the final and very rapid flip to what the field is today – happened toward the end of the most recent interval of low field strength.

Renne is continuing his collaboration with the Italian-French team to correlate the lake record with past climate change.

Renne and Sprain’s work at the Berkeley Geochronology Center was supported by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

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.

Simulations aiding study of earthquake dampers for structures

Earthquake-engineering researchers at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China work to set up a structure on a shake table for experiments to study the effects of earthquakes. Purdue University civil engineering students are working  with counterparts at the institute to study the reliability of models for testing a type of powerful damping system that might be installed in buildings and bridges to reduce structural damage and injuries during earthquakes. -  Photo courtesy of Harbin Institute of Technology
Earthquake-engineering researchers at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China work to set up a structure on a shake table for experiments to study the effects of earthquakes. Purdue University civil engineering students are working with counterparts at the institute to study the reliability of models for testing a type of powerful damping system that might be installed in buildings and bridges to reduce structural damage and injuries during earthquakes. – Photo courtesy of Harbin Institute of Technology

Researchers have demonstrated the reliability and efficiency of “real-time hybrid simulation” for testing a type of powerful damping system that might be installed in buildings and bridges to reduce structural damage and injuries during earthquakes.

The magnetorheological-fluid dampers are shock-absorbing devices containing a liquid that becomes far more viscous when a magnetic field is applied.

“It normally feels like a thick fluid, but when you apply a magnetic field it transforms into a peanut-butter consistency, which makes it generate larger forces when pushed through a small orifice,” said Shirley Dyke, a professor of mechanical engineering and civil engineering at Purdue University.

This dramatic increase in viscosity enables the devices to exert powerful forces and to modify a building’s stiffness in response to motion during an earthquake. The magnetorheological-fluid dampers, or MR dampers, have seen limited commercial use and are not yet being used routinely in structures.

Research led by Dyke and doctoral students Gaby Ou and Ali Ozdagli has now shown real-time hybrid simulations are reliable in studying the dampers. The research is affiliated with the National Science Foundation’s George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES), a shared network of laboratories based at Purdue.

Dyke and her students are working with researchers at the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, home to one of only a few large-scale shake-table facilities in the world.

Findings will be discussed during the NEES Quake Summit 2013 on Aug. 7 and 8 in Reno. A research paper also was presented in May during a meeting in Italy related to a consortium called SERIES (Seismic Engineering Research Infrastructures for European Synergies). The paper was authored by Ou, Dyke, Ozdagli, and researchers Bin Wu and Bo Li from the Harbin Institute.

“The results indicate that the real-time hybrid simulation concept can be considered as a reliable and efficient testing method,” Ou said.

The simulations are referred to as hybrid because they combine computational models with data from physical tests.

“You have physical models and computational models being combined for one test,” Dyke said.

Researchers are able to perform structural tests at slow speed, but testing in real-time – or the actual speed of an earthquake – sheds new light on how the MR dampers perform in structures. The real-time ability has only recently become feasible due to technological advances in computing.

“Sometimes real-time testing is necessary, and that’s where we focus our efforts,” said Dyke, who organized a workshop on the subject to be held during the NEES meeting in Reno. “This hybrid approach is taking off lately. People are getting very excited about it.”

Ozdagli also is presenting related findings next week during the 2013 Conference of the ASCE Engineering Mechanics Institute in Evanston, Ill.

The simulations can be performed in conjunction with research using full-scale building tests. However, there are very few large-scale facilities in the world, and the testing is time-consuming and expensive.

“The real-time hybrid simulations allow you to do many tests to prepare for the one test using a full-scale facility,” Dyke said. “The nice thing is that you can change the numerical model any way you want. You can make it a four-story structure one day and the next day it’s a 10-story structure. You can test an unlimited number of cases with a single physical setup.”

The researchers will present two abstracts during the Reno meeting. One focuses on how the simulation method has been improved and the other describes the overall validation of real-time hybrid simulations.

To prove the reliability of the approach the researchers are comparing pure computational models, pure physical shake-table tests and then the real-time hybrid simulation. Research results from this three-way comparison are demonstrating that the hybrid simulations are accurate.

Ou has developed a mathematical approach to cancel out “noise” that makes it difficult to use testing data. She combined mathematical tools for a new “integrated control strategy” for the hybrid simulation.

“She found that by integrating several techniques in the right mix you can get better performance than in prior tests,” Dyke said.

The researchers have validated the simulations.

“It’s a viable method that can be used by other researchers for many different purposes and in many different laboratories,” Dyke said.

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.”

Rapid changes in the Earth’s core: The magnetic field and gravity from a satellite perspective

Annual to decadal changes in the earth’s magnetic field in a region that stretches from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean have a close relationship with variations of gravity in this area. From this it can be concluded that outer core processes are reflected in gravity data. This is the result presented by a German-French group of geophysicists in the latest issue of PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States).

The main field of the Earth’s magnetic field is generated by flows of liquid iron in the outer core. The Earth’s magnetic field protects us from cosmic radiation particles. Therefore, understanding the processes in the outer core is important to understand the terrestrial shield. Key to this are measurements of the geomagnetic field itself. A second, independent access could be represented by the measurement of minute changes in gravity caused by the fact that the flow in the liquid Earth’s core is associated with mass displacements. The research group has now succeeded to provide the first evidence of such a connection of fluctuations in the Earth’s gravity and magnetic field.

They used magnetic field measurements of the GFZ-satellite CHAMP and extremely accurate measurements of the Earth’s gravity field derived from the GRACE mission, which is also under the auspices of the GFZ. “The main problem was the separation of the individual components of the gravity data from the total signal,” explains Vincent Lesur from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, who is involved in the study. A satellite only measures the total gravity, which consists of the mass fractions of Earth’s body, water and ice on the ground and in the air. To determine the mass redistribution by flows in the outer core, the thus attained share of the total gravity needs to be filtered out. “Similarly, in order to capture the smaller changes in the outer core, the proportion of the magnetic crust and the proportion of the ionosphere and magnetosphere need to be filtered out from the total magnetic field signal measured by the satellite,” Vincent Lesur explains. The data records of the GFZ-satellite missions CHAMP and GRACE enabled this for the first time.

During the investigation, the team focused on an area between the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, as the determined currents flows were the highest here. Extremely fast changes (so-called magnetic jerks) were observed in the year 2007 at the Earth’s surface. These are an indication for sudden changes of liquid flows in the upper outer core and are important for understanding the magneto-hydrodynamics in the Earth’s core. Using the satellite data, a clear signal of gravity data from the Earth’s core could be received for the first time.

This results in consequences for the existing conceptual models. Until now, for example, it was assumed that the differences in the density of the molten iron in the earth’s core are not large enough to generate a measurable signal in the earth’s gravitational field. The newly determined mass flows in the upper outer core allow a new approach to Earth’s core hydrodynamics.

Magnetic pole reversal happens all the (geologic) time

A schematic diagram of Earth's interior and the movement of magnetic north from 1900 to 1996. The outer core is the source of the geomagnetic field. -  Dixon Rohr
A schematic diagram of Earth’s interior and the movement of magnetic north from 1900 to 1996. The outer core is the source of the geomagnetic field. – Dixon Rohr

Scientists understand that Earth’s magnetic field has flipped its polarity many times over the millennia. In other words, if you were alive about 800,000 years ago, and facing what we call north with a magnetic compass in your hand, the needle would point to ‘south.’ This is because a magnetic compass is calibrated based on Earth’s poles. The N-S markings of a compass would be 180 degrees wrong if the polarity of today’s magnetic field were reversed. Many doomsday theorists have tried to take this natural geological occurrence and suggest it could lead to Earth’s destruction. But would there be any dramatic effects? The answer, from the geologic and fossil records we have from hundreds of past magnetic polarity reversals, seems to be ‘no.’

Reversals are the rule, not the exception. Earth has settled in the last 20 million years into a pattern of a pole reversal about every 200,000 to 300,000 years, although it has been more than twice that long since the last reversal. A reversal happens over hundreds or thousands of years, and it is not exactly a clean back flip. Magnetic fields morph and push and pull at one another, with multiple poles emerging at odd latitudes throughout the process. Scientists estimate reversals have happened at least hundreds of times over the past three billion years. And while reversals have happened more frequently in “recent” years, when dinosaurs walked Earth a reversal was more likely to happen only about every one million years.

Sediment cores taken from deep ocean floors can tell scientists about magnetic polarity shifts, providing a direct link between magnetic field activity and the fossil record. The Earth’s magnetic field determines the magnetization of lava as it is laid down on the ocean floor on either side of the Mid-Atlantic Rift where the North American and European continental plates are spreading apart. As the lava solidifies, it creates a record of the orientation of past magnetic fields much like a tape recorder records sound. The last time that Earth’s poles flipped in a major reversal was about 780,000 years ago, in what scientists call the Brunhes-Matuyama reversal. The fossil record shows no drastic changes in plant or animal life. Deep ocean sediment cores from this period also indicate no changes in glacial activity, based on the amount of oxygen isotopes in the cores. This is also proof that a polarity reversal would not affect the rotation axis of Earth, as the planet’s rotation axis tilt has a significant effect on climate and glaciation and any change would be evident in the glacial record.

Earth’s polarity is not a constant. Unlike a classic bar magnet, or the decorative magnets on your refrigerator, the matter governing Earth’s magnetic field moves around. Geophysicists are pretty sure that the reason Earth has a magnetic field is because its solid iron core is surrounded by a fluid ocean of hot, liquid metal. This process can also be modeled with supercomputers. Ours is, without hyperbole, a dynamic planet. The flow of liquid iron in Earth’s core creates electric currents, which in turn create the magnetic field. So while parts of Earth’s outer core are too deep for scientists to measure directly, we can infer movement in the core by observing changes in the magnetic field. The magnetic north pole has been creeping northward – by more than 600 miles (1,100 km) – since the early 19th century, when explorers first located it precisely. It is moving faster now, actually, as scientists estimate the pole is migrating northward about 40 miles per year, as opposed to about 10 miles per year in the early 20th century.

Another doomsday hypothesis about a geomagnetic flip plays up fears about incoming solar activity. This suggestion mistakenly assumes that a pole reversal would momentarily leave Earth without the magnetic field that protects us from solar flares and coronal mass ejections from the sun. But, while Earth’s magnetic field can indeed weaken and strengthen over time, there is no indication that it has ever disappeared completely. A weaker field would certainly lead to a small increase in solar radiation on Earth – as well as a beautiful display of aurora at lower latitudes — but nothing deadly. Moreover, even with a weakened magnetic field, Earth’s thick atmosphere also offers protection against the sun’s incoming particles.

The science shows that magnetic pole reversal is – in terms of geologic time scales – a common occurrence that happens gradually over millennia. While the conditions that cause polarity reversals are not entirely predictable – the north pole’s movement could subtly change direction, for instance – there is nothing in the millions of years of geologic record to suggest that any of the 2012 doomsday scenarios connected to a pole reversal should be taken seriously. A reversal might, however, be good business for magnetic compass manufacturers.

Ground-based lasers vie with satellites to map Earth’s magnetic field

To measure the Earth's magnetic field, an orange laser beam is directed at a layer of sodium 90 kilometers above the Earth. The beam is pulsed at a rate determined by the local magnetic field in order to excite spin polarization of the sodium atoms. The fluorescent emission from the sodium, which depends on the spin polarization, is detected by a ground-based telescope and analyzed to determine the strength of the magnetic field. -  Dmitry Budker lab/UC Berkeley
To measure the Earth’s magnetic field, an orange laser beam is directed at a layer of sodium 90 kilometers above the Earth. The beam is pulsed at a rate determined by the local magnetic field in order to excite spin polarization of the sodium atoms. The fluorescent emission from the sodium, which depends on the spin polarization, is detected by a ground-based telescope and analyzed to determine the strength of the magnetic field. – Dmitry Budker lab/UC Berkeley

Mapping the Earth’s magnetic field – to find oil, track storms or probe the planet’s interior – typically requires expensive satellites.

University of California, Berkeley, physicists have now come up with a much cheaper way to measure the Earth’s magnetic field using only a ground-based laser.

The method involves exciting sodium atoms in a layer 90 kilometers above the surface and measuring the light they give off.

“Normally, the laser makes the sodium atom fluoresce,” said Dmitry Budker, UC Berkeley professor of physics. “But if you modulate the laser light, when the modulation frequency matches the spin precession of the sodium atoms, the brightness of the spot changes.”

Because the local magnetic field determines the frequency at which the atoms precess, this allows someone with a ground-based laser to map the magnetic field anywhere on Earth.

Budker and three current and former members of his laboratory, as well as colleagues with the European Southern Observatory (ESO), lay out their technique in a paper appearing online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Various satellites, ranging from the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites, or GOES, to an upcoming European mission called SWARM, carry instruments to measure the Earth’s magnetic field, providing data to companies searching for oil or minerals, climatologists tracking currents in the atmosphere and oceans, geophysicists studying the planet’s interior and scientists tracking space weather.

Ground-based measurements, however, can avoid several problems associated with satellites, Budker said. Because these spacecraft are moving at high speed, it’s not always possible to tell whether a fluctuation in the magnetic field strength is real or a result of the spacecraft having moved to a new location. Also, metal and electronic instruments aboard the craft can affect magnetic field measurements.

“A ground-based remote sensing system allows you to measure when and where you want and avoids problems of spatial and temporal dependence caused by satellite movement,” he said. “Initially, this is going to be competitive with the best satellite measurements, but it could be improved drastically.”

Laser guide stars

The idea was sparked by a discussion Budker had with a colleague about of the lasers used by many modern telescopes to remove the twinkle from stars caused by atmospheric disturbance. That technique, called laser guide star adaptive optics, employs lasers to excite sodium atoms deposited in the upper atmosphere by meteorites. Once excited, the atoms fluoresce, emitting light that mimics a real star. Telescopes with such a laser guide star, including the Very Large Telescope in Chile and the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, adjust their “rubber mirrors” to cancel the laser guide star’s jiggle, and thus remove the jiggle for all nearby stars.

It is well known that these sodium atoms are affected by the Earth’s magnetic field. Budker, who specializes in extremely precise magnetic-field measurements, realized that you could easily determine the local magnetic field by exciting the atoms with a pulsed or modulated laser of the type used in guide stars. The method is based on the fact that the electron spin of each sodium atom precesses like a top in the presence of a magnetic field. Hitting the atom with light pulses at just the right frequency will cause the electrons to flip, affecting the way the atoms interact with light.

“It suddenly struck me that what we do in my lab with atomic magnetometers we can do with atoms freely floating in the sky,” he said.

Budker’s former post-doctoral fellow James Higbienow an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Bucknell University – conducted laboratory measurements and computer simulations confirming that the effects of a modulated laser could be detected from the ground by a small telescope. He was assisted by Simon M. Rochester, who received his Ph.D. in physics from UC Berkeley last year, and current post-doctoral fellow Brian Patton.

Portable laser magnetometers

In practice, a 20- to 50-watt laser small enough to load on a truck or be attuned to the orange sodium line (589 nanometer wavelength) would shine polarized light into the 10 kilometer-thick sodium layer in the mesosphere, which is about 90 kilometers overhead. The frequency with which the laser light is modulated or pulsed would be shifted slightly around this wavelength to stimulate a spin flip.

The decrease or increase in brightness when the modulation is tuned to a “sweet spot” determined by the magnitude of the magnetic field could be as much as 10 percent of the typical fluorescence, Budker said. The spot itself would be too faint to see with the naked eye, but the brightness change could easily be measured by a small telescope.

“This is such a simple idea, I thought somebody must have thought of it before,” Budker said.

He was right. William Happer, a physicist who pioneered spin-polarized spectroscopy and the sodium laser guide stars, had thought of the idea, but had never published it.

“I was very, very happy to hear that, because I felt there may be a flaw in the idea, or that it had already been published,” Budker said.

While Budker’s lab continues its studies of how spin-polarized sodium atoms emit and absorb light, Budker’s co-authors Ronald Holzlöhner and Domenico Bonaccini Calia of the ESO in Garching, Germany, are building a 20-watt modulated laser for the Very Large Array in Chile that can be used to test the theory.

First measurement of magnetic field in Earth’s core

A cross-section of the earth's interior shows the outer crust, the hot gooey mantle, the liquid outer core and the solid, frozen inner core (gray). (Calvin J. Hamilton graphic)
A cross-section of the earth’s interior shows the outer crust, the hot gooey mantle, the liquid outer core and the solid, frozen inner core (gray). (Calvin J. Hamilton graphic)

A University of California, Berkeley, geophysicist has made the first-ever measurement of the strength of the magnetic field inside Earth’s core, 1,800 miles underground.

The magnetic field strength is 25 Gauss, or 50 times stronger than the magnetic field at the surface that makes compass needles align north-south. Though this number is in the middle of the range geophysicists predict, it puts constraints on the identity of the heat sources in the core that keep the internal dynamo running to maintain this magnetic field.

“This is the first really good number we’ve had based on observations, not inference,” said author Bruce A. Buffett, professor of earth and planetary science at UC Berkeley. “The result is not controversial, but it does rule out a very weak magnetic field and argues against a very strong field.”

The results are published in the Dec. 16 issue of the journal Nature.

A strong magnetic field inside the outer core means there is a lot of convection and thus a lot of heat being produced, which scientists would need to account for, Buffett said. The presumed sources of energy are the residual heat from 4 billion years ago when the planet was hot and molten, release of gravitational energy as heavy elements sink to the bottom of the liquid core, and radioactive decay of long-lived elements such as potassium, uranium and thorium.

A weak field – 5 Gauss, for example – would imply that little heat is being supplied by radioactive decay, while a strong field, on the order of 100 Gauss, would imply a large contribution from radioactive decay.

“A measurement of the magnetic field tells us what the energy requirements are and what the sources of heat are,” Buffett said.

About 60 percent of the power generated inside the earth likely comes from the exclusion of light elements from the solid inner core as it freezes and grows, he said. This constantly builds up crud in the outer core.

The Earth’s magnetic field is produced in the outer two-thirds of the planet’s iron/nickel core. This outer core, about 1,400 miles thick, is liquid, while the inner core is a frozen iron and nickel wrecking ball with a radius of about 800 miles – roughly the size of the moon. The core is surrounded by a hot, gooey mantle and a rigid surface crust.

The cooling Earth originally captured its magnetic field from the planetary disk in which the solar system formed. That field would have disappeared within 10,000 years if not for the planet’s internal dynamo, which regenerates the field thanks to heat produced inside the planet. The heat makes the liquid outer core boil, or “convect,” and as the conducting metals rise and then sink through the existing magnetic field, they create electrical currents that maintain the magnetic field. This roiling dynamo produces a slowly shifting magnetic field at the surface.

“You get changes in the surface magnetic field that look a lot like gyres and flows in the oceans and the atmosphere, but these are being driven by fluid flow in the outer core,” Buffett said.

Buffett is a theoretician who uses observations to improve computer models of the earth’s internal dynamo. Now at work on a second generation model, he admits that a lack of information about conditions in the earth’s interior has been a big hindrance to making accurate models.

He realized, however, that the tug of the moon on the tilt of the earth’s spin axis could provide information about the magnetic field inside. This tug would make the inner core precess – that is, make the spin axis slowly rotate in the opposite direction – which would produce magnetic changes in the outer core that damp the precession. Radio observations of distant quasars – extremely bright, active galaxies – provide very precise measurements of the changes in the earth’s rotation axis needed to calculate this damping.

“The moon is continually forcing the rotation axis of the core to precess, and we’re looking at the response of the fluid outer core to the precession of the inner core,” he said.

By calculating the effect of the moon on the spinning inner core, Buffett discovered that the precession makes the slightly out-of-round inner core generate shear waves in the liquid outer core. These waves of molten iron and nickel move within a tight cone only 30 to 40 meters thick, interacting with the magnetic field to produce an electric current that heats the liquid. This serves to damp the precession of the rotation axis. The damping causes the precession to lag behind the moon as it orbits the earth. A measurement of the lag allowed Buffett to calculate the magnitude of the damping and thus of the magnetic field inside the outer core.

Buffett noted that the calculated field – 25 Gauss – is an average over the entire outer core. The field is expected to vary with position.

“I still find it remarkable that we can look to distant quasars to get insights into the deep interior of our planet,” Buffett said.

Tiny 3-D images shed light on origin of Earth’s core

Silicate material mixed with iron shown at low pressure, with iron forming small, discrete spheres (lighter-colored areas) inside the silicate.
Silicate material mixed with iron shown at low pressure, with iron forming small, discrete spheres (lighter-colored areas) inside the silicate.

To answer the big questions, it often helps to look at the smallest details. That is the approach Stanford mineral physicist Wendy Mao is taking to understanding a major event in Earth’s inner history. Using a new technique to scrutinize how minute amounts of iron and silicate minerals interact at ultra-high pressures and temperatures, she is gaining insight into the biggest transformation Earth has ever undergone – the separation of its rocky mantle from its iron-rich core approximately 4.5 billion years ago.

The technique, called high-pressure nanoscale X-ray computed tomography, is being developed at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. With it, Mao is getting unprecedented detail – in three-dimensional images – of changes in the texture and shape of molten iron and solid silicate minerals as they respond to the same intense pressures and temperatures found deep in the Earth.

Mao will present the results of the first few experiments with the technique at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco on Thursday, Dec. 16.

Tomography refers to the process that creates a three-dimensional image by combining a series of two-dimensional images, or cross-sections, through an object. A computer program interpolates between the images to flesh out a recreation of the object.

Researchers at SLAC have developed a way to combine a diamond anvil cell, which compresses tiny samples between the tips of two diamonds, with nanoscale X-ray computed tomography to capture images of material at high pressure. The pressures deep in the Earth are so high – millions of times atmospheric pressure – that only diamonds can exert the needed pressure without breaking under the force.

At present, the SLAC researchers and their collaborators from HPSync, the High Pressure Synergetic Consortium at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory, are the only group using this technique.

“It is pretty exciting, being able to measure the interactions of iron and silicate materials at very high pressures and temperatures, which you could not do before,” said Mao, an assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences and of photon science. “No one has ever imaged these sorts of changes at these very high pressures.”

It is generally agreed that the initially homogenous ball of material that was the very early Earth had to be very hot in order to differentiate into the layered sphere we live on today. Since the crust and the layer underneath it, the mantle, are silicate-rich, rocky layers, while the core is iron-rich, it’s clear that silicate and iron went in different directions at some point. But how they separated out and squeezed past each other is not clear. Silicate minerals, which contain silica, make up about 90 percent of the crust of the Earth.

If the planet got hot enough to melt both elements, it would have been easy enough for the difference in density to send iron to the bottom and silicates to the top.

If the temperature was not hot enough to melt silicates, it has been proposed that molten iron might have been able to move along the boundaries between grains of the solid silicate minerals.

“To prove that, though, you need to know whether the molten iron would tend to form small spheres or whether it would form channels,” Mao said. “That would depend on the surface energy between the iron and silicate.”

Previous experimental work has shown that at low pressure, iron forms isolated spheres, similar to the way water beads up on a waxed surface, Mao said, and spheres could not percolate through solid silicate material.

Mao said the results of her first high-pressure experiments using the tomography apparatus suggest that at high pressure, since the silicate transforms into a different structure, the interaction between the iron and silicate could be different than at low pressure.

“At high pressure, the iron takes a more elongate, platelet-like form,” she said. That means the iron would spread out on the surface of the silicate minerals, connecting to form channels instead of remaining in isolated spheres.

“So it looks like you could get some percolation of iron at high pressure,” Mao said. “If iron could do that, that would tell you something really significant about the thermal history of the Earth.”

But she cautioned that she only has data from the initial experiments.

“We have some interesting results, but it is the kind of measurement that you need to repeat a couple times to make sure,” Mao said.

Oldest measurement of Earth’s magnetic field reveals battle between sun and Earth for our atmosphere

The larger auroral oval relative to the modern is the result of a weaker dipole magnetic field and stronger solar wind dynamic pressure. The auroral intensity is brighter due to solar wind
densities many times greater than those today, and the dominant color reflects greater energies of the precipitating particles and the mildly reducing Paleoarchean atmosphere. -  Courtesy J. Tarduno and R. Cottrell. University of Rochester
The larger auroral oval relative to the modern is the result of a weaker dipole magnetic field and stronger solar wind dynamic pressure. The auroral intensity is brighter due to solar wind
densities many times greater than those today, and the dominant color reflects greater energies of the precipitating particles and the mildly reducing Paleoarchean atmosphere. – Courtesy J. Tarduno and R. Cottrell. University of Rochester

Scientists at the University of Rochester have discovered that the Earth’s magnetic field 3.5 billion years ago was only half as strong as it is today, and that this weakness, coupled with a strong wind of energetic particles from the young Sun, likely stripped water from the early Earth’s atmosphere.

The findings, presented in today’s issue of Science, suggest that the magnetopause-the boundary where the Earth’s magnetic field successfully deflects the Sun’s incoming solar wind-was only half the distance from Earth it is today.

“With a weak magnetosphere and a rapid-rotating young Sun, the Earth was likely receiving as many solar protons on an average day as we get today during a severe solar storm,” says John Tarduno, a geophysicist at the University of Rochester and lead author of the study. “That means the particles streaming out of the Sun were much more likely to reach Earth. It’s very likely the solar wind was removing volatile molecules, like hydrogen, from the atmosphere at a much greater rate than we’re losing them today.” Tarduno says the loss of hydrogen implies a loss of water as well, meaning there may be much less water on Earth today than in its infancy.

To find the strength of the ancient magnetic field, Tarduno and his colleagues from the University of KwaZulu-Natal visited sites in Africa that were known to contain rocks in excess of 3 billion years of age. Not just any rocks of that age would do, however. Certain igneous rocks called dacites contain small millimeter-sized quartz crystals, which in turn have tiny nanometer-sized magnetic inclusions. The magnetization of these inclusions act as minute compasses, locking in a record of the Earth’s magnetic field as the dacite cooled from molten magma to hard rock. Simply finding rocks of this age is difficult enough, but such rocks have also witnessed billions of years of geological activity that could have reheated them and possibly changed their initial magnetic record. To reduce the chance of this contamination, Tarduno picked out the best preserved grains of feldspar and quartz out of 3.5 billion-year-old dacite outcroppings in South Africa.

Complicating the search for the right rocks further, the effect of the solar wind interacting with the atmosphere can induce a magnetic field of its own, so even if Tarduno did find a rock that had not been altered in 3.5 billion years, he had to make sure the magnetic record it contained was generated by the Earth’s core and not induced by the solar wind.

Once he isolated the ideal crystals, Tarduno used a device called a superconducting quantum interface device, or SQUID magnetometer, which is normally used to troubleshoot computer chips because it’s extremely sensitive to the smallest magnetic fields. Tarduno pioneered the use of single crystal analyses using SQUID magnetometers. However, for this study, even standard SQUID magnetometers lacked the sensitivity. Tarduno was able to employ a new magnetometer, which has sensors closer to the sample than in previous instruments.

Using the new magnetometer, Tarduno, Research Scientist Rory Cottrell, and University of Rochester students were able to confirm that the 3.5 billion-year-old silicate crystals had recorded a field much too strong to be induced by the solar wind-atmosphere interaction, and so must have been generated by Earth’s core.

“We gained a pretty solid idea of how strong Earth’s field was at that time, but we knew that was only half the picture,” says Tarduno. “We needed to understand how much solar wind that magnetic field was deflecting because that would tell us what was probably happening to Earth’s atmosphere.”

The solar wind can strip away a planet’s atmosphere and bathe its surface in lethal radiation. Tarduno points to Mars as an example of a planet that likely lost its magnetosphere early in its history, letting the bombardment of solar wind slowly erode its atmosphere. To discover what kind of solar wind the Earth had to contend with, Tarduno employed the help of Eric Mamajek, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester.

“There is a strong correlation between how old a Sun-like star is and the amount of matter it throws off as solar wind,” says Mamajek “Judging from the rotation and activity we expect of our Sun at a billion years of age, we think that it was shedding material at a rate about 100 times stronger than the average rate observed in modern times.”

While the life cycle of stars like our Sun is well known, says Mamajek, astrophysicists have only a handful of stars for which they know the amount of mass lost as solar wind. Mamajek says the amount of X-rays radiated from a star, regardless of its apparent brightness, can give a good estimate of how much material the star is radiating as solar wind. Through the Sun at this age was likely about 23% dimmer than it would appear to us today, it was giving off much more radiation as X-rays, and driving a much more powerful solar wind.

“We estimate the solar wind at that time was a couple of orders of magnitude stronger,” says Mamajek. “With Earth’s weaker magnetosphere, the standoff point between the two was probably less than five Earth radii. That’s less than half of the distance of 10.7 radii it is today.”

Tarduno says that in addition to the smaller magnetopause allowing the solar wind to strip away more water vapor from the early Earth, the skies might have been filled with more polar aurora. The Earth’s magnetic field bends toward vertical at the poles and channels the solar wind toward the Earth’s surface there. When the solar wind strikes the atmosphere, it releases photons that appear as shifting patterns of light at night.

With the weakened magnetosphere, the area where the solar wind is channeled toward the surface-an area called the magnetic polar cap-would have been three times larger than it is today, says Tarduno.

“On a normal night 3.5 billion years ago you’d probably see the aurora as far south as New York,” says Tarduno.