Saturday, December 9, 2023

Scientists use seismic waves to indicate that Earth’s inner core might not be solid

About 5,150 kilometres beneath Earth’s surface lies the inner core, a ball-shaped mass of mostly iron that is responsible for Earth’s magnetic field. In the 1950s, researchers suggested the inner core was solid, in contrast to the liquid metal region surrounding it. However, new research led by Rhett Butler, a geophysicist at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), suggests that Earth’s “solid” inner core is, in fact, endowed with a range of liquid, soft, and hard structures that vary across the top 240 kilometres of the inner core, reports The depth, pressure, and temperature make inner Earth inaccessible, so Butler and co-author Seiji Tsuboi, research scientist at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, relied on the only means available to probe the innermost Earth – earthquake waves. “Illuminated by earthquakes in the crust and upper mantle, and observed by seismic observatories at Earth’s surface, seismology offers the only direct way to investigate the inner core and its processes,” said Butler. As seismic waves move through various layers of Earth, their speed changes and they may reflect or refract depending on the minerals, temperature, and density of that layer. In order to infer features of the inner core, Butler and Tsuboi utilized data from seismometers directly opposite of the location where an earthquake was generated. Using Japan’s Earth Simulator supercomputer, they assessed five pairings to broadly cover the inner core region: Tonga–Algeria, Indonesia–Brazil, and three between Chile–China. “In stark contrast to the homogeneous, soft iron alloys considered in all Earth models of the inner core since the 1970’s, our models suggest there are adjacent regions of hard, soft, and liquid or mushy iron alloys in the top 150 miles of the inner core,” said Butler. “This puts new constraints upon the composition, thermal history, and evolution of Earth.” The researchers plan to model the inner core structure in finer detail using the Earth Simulator and compare how that structure compares with various characteristics of Earth’s geomagnetic field.

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