The Earth’s magnetic field permanently protects us from the charged particles and radiation produced by our Sun. This shield is created by the geodynamo process, the rapid motion of huge quantities of liquid iron alloy in the Earth’s outer core. To maintain this magnetic field until the present day, the classical model required the Earth’s core to have cooled by around 3,000° C over the past 4.3 billion years.
Now, a team of researchers from French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Université Blaise Pascal1 suggests that, on the contrary, its temperature has fallen by only 300° C. The action of the moon, overlooked until now, is thought to have compensated for this difference and kept the geodynamo active. Their work is published in the March 30 2016 journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
The classical model of the formation of Earth’s magnetic field has raised a major paradox. For the geodynamo to work, the Earth would have had to be totally molten four billion years ago, and its core would have had to slowly cool from around 6800° C at that time to 3800° C today. However, recent modeling of the early evolution of the internal temperature of the planet, together with geochemical studies of the composition of the oldest carbonatites and basalts, do not support such cooling. With such high temperatures being ruled out, the researchers propose another source of energy in their study.
The gravitational effects associated with the presence of the Moon and Sun on Earth induces cyclic deformation of the mantle and oscillations of the axis of rotation. This mechanical forcing applied to the entire planet induces strong currents in the outer core made of an iron alloy of very low viscosity. These currents are sufficient to generate the Earth’s magnetic field.
The Earth has a slightly flattened shape and rotates about an inclined axis that wobbles around the poles. Its mantle deforms elastically due to tidal effects caused by the moon. The researchers show that this effect could continuously stimulate the motion of the liquid iron alloy making up the outer core, and in return generate Earth’s magnetic field. The Earth continuously receives 3700 billion watts of power through the transfer of the gravitational and rotational energy of the Earth-moon-Sun system, and over 1,000 billion watts is thought to be available to bring about this type of motion in the outer core. This energy is enough to generate the Earth’s magnetic field, which together with the moon, resolves the major paradox in the classical theory. The effect of gravitational forces on a planet’s magnetic field has already been well documented for two of Jupiter’s moons, Io and Europa, and for a number of exoplanets.
As neither the rotation of the Earth around its axis, or orientation of the axis, or the orbit of the moon are perfectly regular – their combined influence on Earth’s inner and outer core, becomes unstable causing fluctuations in the geodynamo. This phenomenon helps explain what would be the catalyst for the ebb and flow of mantle plumes.
Historically, this could lead to melting peaks in the deep mantle and possible major volcanic events on the surface of the Earth. This new model underlines that the influence of the moon on the Earth therefore goes well beyond the simple case of the tides.