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

Oxygen, magnetic reversals and mass extinctions

In April 2005 EPN reported evidence for a late Permian fall in atmospheric oxygen concentration to about 16% from its all-time high of 30% in the Carboniferous and earlier Permian.. This would have reduced the highest elevation on land where animals could live to about 2.7 km above sea level, compared with 4 to 5 today. Such an event would have placed a great deal of stress on terrestrial animal families. Moreover, it implies anoxic conditions in the oceans that would stress marine animals too. At the time, it seemed unlikely that declining oxygen was the main trigger for the end-Permian mass extinction as the decline would probably have been gradual; for instance by oxygen being locked into iron-3 compounds that give Permian and Triassic terrestrial sediments their unrelenting red coloration. By most accounts the greatest mass extinction of the Phanerozoic was extremely swift.

The possibility of extinctions being brought on by loss of oxygen from the air and ocean water has reappeared, though with suggestion of a very different means of achieving it (Wei, Y. and 10 others 2014. Oxygen escape from the Earth during geomagnetic reversals: Implications to mass extinction. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 394, p. 94-98). The nub of the issue proposed by the Chinese-German authors is the dissociation and ionization by solar radiation of O2 molecules into O+ ions. If exposed to the solar wind, such ions could literally be ‘blown away’ into interplanetary space; an explanation for the lack of much in the way of any atmosphere on Mars today. Mars is prone to such ionic ablation because it now has a very weak magnetic field and may have been in that state for 3 billion years or more. Earth’s much larger magnetic field diverts the solar wind by acting as an electromagnetic buffer against much loss of gases, except free hydrogen and to a certain extent helium. But the geomagnetic field undergoes reversals, and while they are in progress, the field drops to very low levels exposing Earth to loss of oxygen as well as to dangerous levels of ionising radiation through unprotected exposure of the surface to the solar wind.

Artist's rendition of Earth's magnetosphere.
Artist’s rendition of Earth’s magnetosphere deflecting the solar wind. (credit: Wikipedia)

Field reversals and, presumably, short periods of very low geomagnetic field associated with them, varied in their frequency through time. For the past 80 Ma the reversal rate has been between 1 and 5 per million years. For much of the Cretaceous Period there were hardly any during a magnetic quiet episode or superchron. Earlier Mesozoic times were magnetically hectic, when reversals rose to rates as high as 7 per million years in the early Jurassic. This was preceded by another superchron that spanned the Permian and Late Carboniferous. Earlier geomagnetic data are haphazardly distributed through the stratigraphic column, so little can be said in the context of reversal-oxygen-extinction connections.

Geomagnetic polarity over the past 169 Ma, tra...
Geomagnetic polarity over the past 169 Ma (credit: Wikipedia)

Wei et al. focus on the end-Triassic mass extinction which does indeed coincide, albeit roughly, with low geochemically modelled atmospheric oxygen levels (~15%). This anoxic episode extended almost to the end of the Jurassic, although that was a period of rapid faunal diversification following the extinction event. Yet it does fall in the longest period of rapid reversals of the Mesozoic. However, this is the only clear reversal-oxygen-extinction correlation, the Cenozoic bucking the prediction. In order to present a seemingly persuasive case for their idea, the authors assign mass extinctions not to very rapid events – of the order of hundreds of thousand years at most – which is well supported by both fossils and stratigraphy, but to ‘blocks’ of time of the order of tens of million years.

My own view is that quite possibly magnetic reversals can have adverse consequences for life, but as a once widely considered causal mechanism for mass extinction they have faded from the scene; unlikely to be resurrected by this study. There are plenty of more plausible and better supported mechanisms, such as impacts and flood-basalt outpourings. Yet several large igneous provinces do coincide with the end of geomagnetic superchrons, although that correlation may well be due to the associated mantle plumes marking drastic changes around the core-mantle boundary. According to Wei et al., the supposed 6th mass extinction of the Neogene has a link to the general speeding up of geomagnetic reversals through the Cenozoic: not much has happened to either oxygen levels or biodiversity during the Neogene, and the predicted 6th mass extinction has more to do with human activity than the solar wind.

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