Earth’s core is the very hot, very dense center of our planet.
9 - 12+
Earth Science, Geology, Geography, Physical Geography, Physics
Earth’s core is the very hot, very dense center of our planet. The ball-shaped core lies beneath the cool, brittle crust and the mostly solid mantle. The core is found about 2,900 kilometers (1,802 miles) below Earth’s surface, and has a radius of about 3,485 kilometers (2,165 miles).
Planet Earth is older than the core. When Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, it was a uniform ball of hot rock. Radioactive decay and leftover heat from planetary formation (the collision, accretion, and compression of space rocks) caused the ball to get even hotter. Eventually, after about 500 million years, our young planet’s temperature heated to the melting point of iron—about 1,538° Celsius (2,800° Fahrenheit). This pivotal moment in Earth’s history is called the iron catastrophe.
The iron catastrophe allowed greater, more rapid movement of Earth’s molten, rocky material. Relatively buoyant material, such as silicates, water, and even air, stayed close to the planet’s exterior. These materials became the early mantle and crust. Droplets of iron, nickel, and other heavy metals gravitated to the center of Earth, becoming the early core. This important process is called planetary differentiation.
Earth’s core is the furnace of the geothermal gradient. The geothermal gradient measures the increase of heat and pressure in Earth’s interior. The geothermal gradient is about 25° Celsius per kilometer of depth (1° Fahrenheit per 70 feet). The primary contributors to heat in the core are the decay of radioactive elements, leftover heat from planetary formation, and heat released as the liquid outer core solidifies near its boundary with the inner core.
Unlike the mineral-rich crust and mantle, the core is made almost entirely of metal—specifically, iron (Fe) and nickel (Ni). The shorthand used for the core’s iron-nickel alloys is simply the elements’ chemical symbols—NiFe.
Elements that dissolve in iron, called siderophiles, are also found in the core. Because these elements are found much more rarely on Earth’s crust, many siderophiles are classified as “precious metals.” Siderophile elements include gold, platinum, and cobalt.
Another key element in Earth’s core is sulfur—in fact 90 percent of the sulfur on Earth is found in the core. The confirmed discovery of such vast amounts of sulfur helped explain a geologic mystery: If the core was primarily NiFe, why wasn’t it heavier? Geoscientists speculated that lighter elements such as oxygen or silicon might have been present. The abundance of sulfur, another relatively light element, explained the conundrum.
Although we know that the core is the hottest part of our planet, its precise temperatures are difficult to determine. The fluctuating temperatures in the core depend on pressure, Earth's rotation, and the varying composition of core elements. In general, temperatures range from about 4,400° Celsius (7,952° Fahrenheit) to about 6,000° Celsius (10,800° Fahrenheit).
The core is made of two layers: the outer core, which borders the mantle, and the inner core. The boundary separating these regions is called the Bullen discontinuity.
The outer core, about 2,200 kilometers (1,367 miles) thick, is mostly composed of liquid iron and nickel. The NiFe alloy of the outer core is very hot, between 4,500° and 5,500° Celsius (8,132° and 9,932° Fahrenheit).
The liquid metal of the outer core has very low viscosity, meaning it is easily deformed and malleable. It is the site of violent convection. The churning metal of the outer core creates and sustains Earth’s magnetic field.
The hottest part of the core is actually the Bullen discontinuity, where temperatures reach 6,000° Celsius (10,800° Fahrenheit)—as hot as the surface of the sun.
The inner core is a hot, dense ball of (mostly) iron. It has a radius of about 1,220 kilometers (758 miles). Temperature in the inner core is about 5,200° Celsius (9,392° Fahrenheit). The pressure is nearly 3.6 million atmosphere (atm).
The temperature of the inner core is far above the melting point of iron. However, unlike the outer core, the inner core is not liquid or even molten. The inner core’s intense pressure—the entire rest of the planet and its atmosphere—prevents the iron from melting. The pressure and density are simply too great for the iron atoms to move into a liquid state. Because of this unusual set of circumstances, some geophysicists prefer to interpret the inner core not as a solid, but as a plasma behaving as a solid.
The liquid outer core separates the inner core from the rest of Earth, and as a result, the inner core rotates a little differently than the rest of the planet. It rotates eastward, like the surface, but it’s a little faster, making an extra rotation about every 1,000 years.
Geoscientists think that the iron crystals in the inner core are arranged in an “hcp” (hexagonal close-packed) pattern. The crystals align north-south, along with Earth’s axis of rotation and magnetic field.
The orientation of the crystal structure means that seismic waves—the most reliable way to study the core—travel faster when going north-south than when going east-west. Seismic waves travel four seconds faster pole-to-pole than through the Equator.
Growth in the Inner Core
As the entire Earth slowly cools, the inner core grows by about a millimeter every year. The inner core grows as bits of the liquid outer core solidify or crystallize. Another word for this is “freezing,” although it’s important to remember that iron’s freezing point is more than 1,000° Celsius (1,832° Fahrenheit).
The growth of the inner core is not uniform. It occurs in lumps and bunches, and is influenced by activity in the mantle.
Growth is more concentrated around subduction zones—regions where tectonic plates are slipping from the lithosphere into the mantle, thousands of kilometers above the core. Subducted plates draw heat from the core and cool the surrounding area, causing increased instances of solidification.
Growth is less concentrated around “superplumes” or LLSVPs. These ballooning masses of superheated mantle rock likely influence “hot spot” volcanism in the lithosphere, and contribute to a more liquid outer core.
The core will never “freeze over.” The crystallization process is very slow, and the constant radioactive decay of Earth’s interior slows it even further. Scientists estimate it would take about 91 billion years for the core to completely solidify—but the sun will burn out in a fraction of that time (about 5 billion years).
Just like the lithosphere, the inner core is divided into eastern and western hemispheres. These hemispheres don’t melt evenly, and have distinct crystalline structures.
The western hemisphere seems to be crystallizing more quickly than the eastern hemisphere. In fact, the eastern hemisphere of the inner core may actually be melting.
Inner Inner Core
Geoscientists recently discovered that the inner core itself has a core—the inner inner core. This strange feature differs from the inner core in much the same way the inner core differs from the outer core. Scientists think that a radical geologic change about 500 million years ago caused this inner inner core to develop.
The crystals of the inner inner core are oriented east-west instead of north-south. This orientation is not aligned with either Earth’s rotational axis or magnetic field. Scientists think the iron crystals may even have a completely different structure (not hcp), or exist at a different phase.
Earth’s magnetic field is created in the swirling outer core. Magnetism in the outer core is about 50 times stronger than it is on the surface.
It might be easy to think that Earth’s magnetism is caused by the big ball of solid iron in the middle. But in the inner core, the temperature is so high the magnetism of iron is altered. Once this temperature, called the Curie point, is reached, the atoms of a substance can no longer align to a magnetic point.
Some geoscientists describe the outer core as Earth’s “geodynamo.” For a planet to have a geodynamo, it must rotate, it must have a fluid medium in its interior, the fluid must be able to conduct electricity, and it must have an internal energy supply that drives convection in the liquid.
Variations in rotation, conductivity, and heat impact the magnetic field of a geodynamo. Mars, for instance, has a totally solid core and a weak magnetic field. Venus has a liquid core, but rotates too slowly to churn significant convection currents. It, too, has a weak magnetic field. Jupiter, on the other hand, has a liquid core that is constantly swirling due to the planet’s rapid rotation.
Earth is the “Goldilocks” geodynamo. It rotates steadily, at a brisk 1,675 kilometers per hour (1,040 miles per hour) at the Equator. Coriolis forces, an artifact of Earth’s rotation, cause convection currents to be spiral. The liquid iron in the outer core is an excellent electrical conductor, and creates the electrical currents that drive the magnetic field.
The energy supply that drives convection in the outer core is provided as droplets of liquid iron freeze onto the solid inner core. Solidification releases heat energy. This heat, in turn, makes the remaining liquid iron more buoyant. Warmer liquids spiral upward, while cooler solids spiral downward under intense pressure: convection.
Earth’s Magnetic Field
Earth’s magnetic field is crucial to life on our planet. It protects the planet from the charged particles of the solar wind. Without the shield of the magnetic field, the solar wind would strip Earth’s atmosphere of the ozone layer that protects life from harmful ultraviolet radiation.
Although Earth’s magnetic field is generally stable, it fluctuates constantly. As the liquid outer core moves, for instance, it can change the location of the magnetic North and South Poles. The magnetic North Pole moves up to 64 kilometers (40 miles) every year.
Fluctuations in the core can cause Earth’s magnetic field to change even more dramatically. Geomagnetic pole reversals, for instance, happen about every 200,000 to 300,000 years. Geomagnetic pole reversals are just what they sound like: a change in the planet’s magnetic poles, so that the magnetic North and South Poles are reversed. These “pole flips” are not catastrophic—scientists have noted no real changes in plant or animal life, glacial activity, or volcanic eruptions during previous geomagnetic pole reversals.
Studying the Core
Geoscientists cannot study the core directly. All information about the core has come from sophisticated reading of seismic data, analysis of meteorites, lab experiments with temperature and pressure, and computer modeling.
Most core research has been conducted by measuring seismic waves, the shock waves released by earthquakes at or near the surface. The velocity and frequency of seismic body waves changes with pressure, temperature, and rock composition.
In fact, seismic waves helped geoscientists identify the structure of the core itself. In the late 19th century, scientists noted a “shadow zone” deep in the planet, where a type of body wave called an s-wave either stopped entirely or was altered. S-waves are unable to transmit through fluids or gases. The sudden “shadow” where s-waves disappeared indicated that Earth had a liquid layer.
In the 20th century, geoscientists discovered an increase in the velocity of p-waves, another type of body wave, at about 5,150 kilometers (3,200 miles) below the surface. The increase in velocity corresponded to a change from a liquid or molten medium to a solid. This proved the existence of a solid inner core.
Meteorites, space rocks that crash to Earth, also provide clues about Earth’s core. Most meteorites are fragments of asteroids, rocky bodies that orbit the sun between Mars and Jupiter. Asteroids formed about the same time, and from about the same material, as Earth. By studying iron-rich chondrite meteorites, geoscientists can get a peek into the early formation of our solar system and Earth’s early core.
In the lab, the most valuable tool for studying forces and reactions at the core is the diamond anvil cell. Diamond anvil cells use the hardest substance on Earth (diamonds) to simulate the incredibly high pressure at the core. The device uses an x-ray laser to simulate the core’s temperature. The laser is beamed through two diamonds squeezing a sample between them.
Complex computer modeling has also allowed scientists to study the core. In the 1990s, for instance, modeling beautifully illustrated the geodynamo—complete with pole flips.
Although the inner core is mostly NiFe, the iron catastrophe also drove heavy siderophile elements to the center of Earth. In fact, one geoscientist calculated that there are 1.6 quadrillion tons of gold in the core—that’s enough to gild the entire surface of the planet half-a-meter (1.5 feet) thick.
All known planets have metal cores. Even the gas giants of our solar system, such as Jupiter and Saturn, have iron and nickel at their cores.
One of the most bizarre ways geoscientists study the core is through “geoneutrinos.” Geoneutrinos are neutrinos, the lightest subatomic particle, released by the natural radioactive decay of potassium, thorium, and uranium in Earth’s interior. By studying geoneutrinos, scientists can better understand the composition and spatial distribution of materials in the mantle and core.
Inge Lehman, who called herself “the only Danish seismologist” working in the 1930s, was a pioneering figure in the study of Earth’s interior. Lehman was the first to identify Earth’s solid inner core, and became a leading expert in the structure of the upper mantle as well. She was the first woman to receive the prestigious William Bowie Medal, the highest honor awarded by the American Geophysical Union. In 1997, the AGU created the Inge Lehman Medal, recognizing a scientist’s “outstanding contributions to the understanding of the structure, composition, and dynamics of the Earth's mantle and core.”
“Subterranean fiction” describes adventure stories taking place deep below Earth's surface. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth is probably the most well-known piece of subterranean fiction. Other examples include Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, in which the center of Earth is Hell itself; the movie Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, in which an underground world allows dinosaurs to survive into the present day; and the rabbit hole of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—which was originally titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.
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October 19, 2023
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