Late formation of the Earth’s inner core

The layered structure of the Earth was discovered using the varying arrival times of seismic waves from major earthquakes, which pass through the Earth, at seismometer stations located across the planet’s surface. Analysis of these arrival times indicates the wavepaths taken through the planet, involving reflections and refractions at boundaries of materials with distinctly different physical properties. S-waves from an earthquake do not arrive in a wide ‘shadow zone’ around its antipode. Since that kind of wave depends on shearing and cannot pass through liquid the shadow reveals the presence of an outer core made of very dense liquid iron and nickel. P-waves that travel in a manner akin to sound waves also show a shadow but it is annular in form around the antipode because of refraction at the core-mantle boundary, but they do penetrate to reach the antipode. However, their arrival times there show faster speeds than expected from an entirely liquid core, and so reveal a central mass, the inner core, which is a ball of solid iron-nickel alloy about 70% of the Moon’s size.

The Earth’s internal structure as revealed by seismic waves (Credit: Smithsonian Institute)

Movements of liquid Fe-Ni in the outer core generate Earth’s magnetic field in the manner of a self-exciting dynamo. Motion in the outer core results from convection of heat from below – probably mainly heat generated by planetary accretion – coupled with the Earth’s rotation and the Coriolis Effect.  The present style of motion is in a thick molten layer trapped between the solid mantle and the inner core. Its circulation results in a magnetic field with two distinct poles close to the geographic ones. The field is crudely similar to that of a bar magnet, with lesser deviations spread around the planet. However, it is not particularly stable, as shown by periodic flips or reversals of polarity through geological time (see: How the core controls Earth’s magnetic field reversals; April 2005).

Few geoscientists doubt that the core formed early in Earth’s history from excess iron, nickel and sulfur, plus other siderophile elements such as gold, that cannot be accommodated by the dominant silicates of the mantle. This could not have been achieved other than by iron-rich melts sinking in some way because of their density. Gradual loss of original heat of accretion and declining radiogenic heat from rare isotopes (e.g. 40K) in the melt suggests an original, totally molten core that at some time began to crystallise under stupendous pressure in its lowest parts. A fully molten core would have been turbulent and therefore able to generate a magnetic field, and Archaean rocks still retain remanent magnetisation. The form that the field took can only be modelled. At times it may have been dipolar – paleomagnetic pole positions match geological evidence for early supercontinents –  and it may have undergone reversals. When the inner core formed has long remained disputed, yet thanks to advances in palaeomagnetic analysis it may now have been resolved  (Zhou, T. and 11 others 2022. Early Cambrian renewal of the geodynamo and the origin of inner core structure. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 4161; DOI:10.1038/s41467-022-31677-7).

Tinghong Zhou of the University of Rochester, USA, and colleagues from other US, Chinese and British institutions have assiduously measured the original magnetic intensities locked in tiny iron- and iron-titanium oxide needles trapped in feldspars that dominate plutonic igneous rocks, known as anorthosites, of late Precambrian age. They found that, by about 565 Ma ago during the Ediacaran Period, the Earth’s magnetic field strength had fallen to almost a sixth of its value in the early Archaean: about 15 times less than it is today. Within a mere 30 Ma it had risen to become 5 times its lowest value , as recorded by a Cambrian anorthosite, and then rose steadily through the Phanerozoic Eon to its present strength. Modelling of the rapid rebound suggests that the inner core had begun to crystallise by about 550 Ma to reach half its present radius by the end of the Ordovician Period (~450 Ma).

That event may also have been a milestone for the continuation of biological evolution on Earth. While Mars once probably had a molten core and magnetic field, it vanished 4 billion years ago, probably when its core became solid. Early Mars had an ocean in its northern hemisphere up to about 3.8 Ga, and there is plenty of evidence for erosion by water on its higher surfaces. For liquid water to have existed there for hundreds of million years demands a thick, warm atmosphere able to initiate a greenhouse effect. With low atmospheric pressure water could have existed only as ice or water vapour. Now its atmosphere is very thin and except at its poles there is no sign of surface water, even as ice (it is possible that significant amounts of water ice remain protected beneath the surface of Mars). One hypothesis is that when Mars lost its magnetic field it also lost protection from the stream of energetic particles known as the solar wind, which can strip water vapour and carbon dioxide – and thus their ability to retain atmospheric heat – from the top of the atmosphere. Earth is currently protected from the solar wind by its strong magnetic field and magnetosphere that deflects high-speed, charged particles. During the Ediacaran Period it almost lost that protection, but was spared by the self-exciting dynamo being regenerated.

See also: How did Earth avoid a Mars-like fate? Ancient rocks hold clues. Science Daily, 25 July 2022

Is there water in the Earth’s core?

Understandably, the nature of what lies at the centre of the Earth is as much the subject of speculation as tangible evidence. That there must be something very dense within the planet emerged once the Earth’s bulk density was calculated. Because a high proportion of meteorites are dominated by an alloy of the metals iron and nickel, geoscientists adopted that combination as plausible core material. Study of the arrival times around the globe of seismic waves from earthquakes then revealed the actual size of the Earth’s core. Iron-nickel alloy fitted the bill quite nicely. It also fits geochemical evidence, such as the crust and mantle’s depletion in some trace elements that theoretically have an affinity for iron. The fact that seismology showed also that the outer core was molten and able to flow, together with metals’ high electrical conductivity, gave rise to the current concept of the geomagnetic field being generated by a dynamo effect in the core. However the density of Fe-Ni is not ‘quite right’ because the core is somewhat lighter than predicted for the pure alloy under stupendous pressure: it must contain a substantial amount – up to 13% – of lower density materials.  Silicon, sulfur and oxygen have been suggested as candidates, with evidence from a variety of minor minerals in metallic meteorites.

A recent model for core formation (credit Crystal Y. Shi et al 2013; DOI: 10.1038/NGEO1956 Fig. 5)

The world is currently awash with models that attempt to throw light on the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many are based on highly uncertain data, leading to suggestions by some people that they have become tools for political elites and a means of helping ambitious scientists into the limelight: a sort of fuel for hubris. In the midst of this unprecedented turmoil there has appeared a suggestion (from modelling) that the core also contains abundant hydrogen (Li, Y. et al. 2020. The Earth’s core as a reservoir of water. Nature Geoscience, v. 13, published online; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-020-0578-1). Yunguo Li and colleagues, from University College London, the Chinese Academy of Science and the University of Oslo, explore the idea that the dominant hydrogen of the pre-planetary Solar nebula, which accreted to form the Earth, may have joined iron during core formation. This had been predicted from the thermodynamics of chemical reactions between water and iron. The team takes this further through the geochemical theory that elements and compounds tend to enter other materials preferentially. For example, during partial melting of the crust alkali metals (Na, K etc) are more likely to enter the granitic melt than to remain in the solid residue. Li et al. have used thermodynamics to predict the partitioning of hydrogen between iron and silicate melts under the very high temperature and pressure conditions at the boundary between the core and mantle.

Their calculations suggest that hydrogen then behaves in much the same manner as, say gold and platinum: it becomes ‘iron-loving’ or siderophile and prefers the molten core, as would H2O. The amount that gets in depends on the water content of the molten silicate that eventually becomes the mantle. If the water now making up Earth’s ocean was ‘degassed’ from the mantle during core formation then the original silicate melt would have been ‘wetter’ than it is now. The implication of such early degassing is that the core may contain 5 ‘oceans worth’ of water! The alternative scenario for Earth’s becoming a watery world is the later accretion of, for instance, cometary material. In that case, the early core would have been drier. Yet, the continual subduction of hydrated oceanic lithosphere into the deep mantle during billions of years of plate tectonics would steadily have added water to the core, in the form of iron oxides and hydrogen. So, the core might, in either case, contain several ‘oceans’ of the components of water. One line of indirect evidence is the deficiency in Earth’s actual water of the heavier isotope of hydrogen (deuterium) relative to the D/H ratio of chondritic meteorites. Theory suggests that D has slightly more affinity for joining iron than does H. Substantial water in the core does help explain the core’s apparent low density, but that notion requires as much faith as politicians seem to have in ‘following the Science’ during the current pandemic …

Large earthquakes and the length of the day

Geoscientists have become used to the idea that long-term global climate shifts are cyclical, as predicted by Milutin Milanković. The periods of shifts in the Earth’s orbital and rotational parameters are of the order of tens to hundreds of thousand years. The gravitational reasons why they occur have been known since the 1920s when Milanković came up with his hypothesis, and they were confirmed fifty years later. But there are plenty of other cycles with shorter periods. The last 115 years of worldwide records for earthquakes with magnitudes greater than 7 whose changing annual frequency shows a clear cyclical period of about 32 years. The records show peaks in 1910, 1943, 1970 and 2011 (see Bendick, R. & Bilham, R. 1917. Do weak global stresses synchronize earthquakes? Geophysical Research Letters, v. 44 online; doi/10.1002/2017GL074934). Unlike Milanković cycles, these oscillations were not predicted, but something synchronous with them must be forcing this behavior: a sort of “cross-talk”. Either global seismicity has a tendency for events to trigger others elsewhere on the Earth or some other process is periodically engaging with major brittle deformation to give it a nudge.

Rebecca Bendick, of the University of Montana, Missoula, and Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado, Boulder used a complex statistical method to check for synchronicity between the seismic cycles and other repetitive phenomena. It turns out that there is a close match with historic data for the length of the day which varies by several milliseconds. At first sight this may seem odd, until one realizes that day length is governed by the Earth’s speed of rotation (about 460 m s-1 at the Equator). The correlation is between increases in both major seismicity and the length of the day; i.e. quakes increase as rotation slows.  Day length can vary by a millisecond over a year or so during el Niño, which involves shifts of vast masses of Pacific Ocean water that affect rotation. But what of larger changes on a three-decade cycle? Seismic events and the forces that they release result from buildup of strain in the lithosphere, so the episodic earthquake maxima require some kind of transfer of momentum within the Earth. It does not need to be large, as the Milanković astronomical forcing of climate demonstrates, just a regular pulse.

One possibility is that, as rotation decelerates, decoupling between the liquid outer core and the solid mantle may change the flow of molten iron-nickel alloy.  That may be sufficient to transmit momentum and thus stress through the plastic mantle to the brittle lithosphere so that areas of high elastic strain are pushed beyond the rocks’ strength so that they fail. There are indeed signs that the geomagnetic field also changes with day length on a decadal basis (Voosen, P. 2017. Sloshing of Earth’s core may spike big quakes. Science, v. 358, p. 575; doi:10.1126/science.358.6363.575). Rotational deceleration began in 2011, and if the last century’s trend holds there may be an extra five large earthquakes next year. Could the deadly 7.3 magnitude earthquake at the Iran-Iraq border on 12 November 2017 be the start? If so, will the 32-year connection improve currently unreliable earthquake forecasting? Probably the best we can expect is increased global readiness. The study has nothing to add as regards which areas are at risk: although there is clustering in time there is none with location, even on the regional scale.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook
Iranians salvage their furniture and household appliances from damaged buildings in the town of Sarpol-e Zahab in Iran’s western Kermanshah province near the border with Iraq, on November 14, 2017