Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, March 17, 2023

The heart of the world

One of the biggest mysteries in science lies literally beneath our feet; the structure and composition of the interior of the Earth.

We have direct access only to the barest fraction of it.  The deepest borehole ever created is the Kola Superdeep Borehole, on the Kola Peninsula in Russia near the border of Norway.  It's 12.26 kilometers deep, which is pretty impressive, but when you realize that the mean radius of the Earth is just under 6,400 kilometers, it kind of puts things in perspective.

What we know is that the crust is principally silicate rock -- lower-density felsic rocks (like granite) forming the majority of the continental crust, and denser mafic rocks (like basalt) comprising the thinner oceanic crust.  Beneath that is the semisolid mantle, which makes up two-thirds of the Earth's mass.  Inside that is the outer core, thought (primarily from estimates of density) to be made up of liquid iron and nickel, and within that the inner core, a solid ball of red-hot iron and nickel.

At least that's what we thought.  All of this was determined through inference from evidence like the relative speed of different kinds of seismic waves; despite what Jules Verne would have you believe, no one has been to the center of the Earth (nor is likely to).  But figuring all this out is important not just from the standpoint of adding to our knowledge of the planet we live on, but in comprehending phenomena like magnetic field reversals -- something that would have obvious impacts on our own lives, and which are still poorly understood at best.

We just got another piece of the puzzle in the form of a paper last week in Nature that suggests our picture of the Earth's inner core as a homogeneous ball of solid iron and nickel may not be right.  Using data from seismic waves, scientists at the Australian National University in Canberra have concluded that the inner core itself has two layers.  The exact difference between the two isn't certain -- as I said before, we're limited by what information we can get long-distance -- but the best guess is that it's a difference in crystal structure, probably caused by the immense pressures at the center.

[Image courtesy of Drew Whitehouse, Hrvoje Tkalčić, and Thanh-Son Phạm]

In general, whenever a wave crosses a boundary from one medium to another, it refracts (changes angle); this is why a straw leaning in a glass of water looks like it's bent.  If the angle is shallow enough, some of the wave's energy can also reflect off the interface.  When that happens to seismic waves inside the Earth, those reflected waves bounce around inside the core; when they finally make it back out and are measured by scientists on the Earth's surface, features such as the energy, wavelength, and angle can provide a lot of information about the materials it passed through on its journey.

The authors write:
Earth’s inner core (IC), which accounts for less than 1% of the Earth’s volume, is a time capsule of our planet’s history.  As the IC grows, the latent heat and light elements released by the solidification process drive the convection of the liquid outer core, which, in turn, maintains the geodynamo.  Although the geomagnetic field might have preceded the IC’s birth5, detectable changes in the IC’s structures with depth could signify shifts in the geomagnetic field’s operation, which could have profoundly influenced the Earth’s evolution and its eco-system.  Therefore, probing the innermost part of the IC is critical to further disentangling the time capsule and understanding Earth’s evolution in the distant past.

The discovery of the Earth's hitherto-unknown center could help us to understand one of the most fundamental questions in geology; the structure of the inside of the Earth.  We still have a very long way to go, of course.  As I said, even understanding how exactly the core generates the Earth's protective magnetic field is far from achieved.  But the new research gives us a deeper comprehension of the structure of the inner core -- the red-hot heart hidden beneath the deceptively tranquil surface of our home planet. 


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