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Confirmation That Earth's Core Is Solid (sciencealert.com)
63 points by gscott on Oct 22, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 23 comments

I'm a geologist. This press release is pure BS. We've known beyond reasonable doubt that the inner core is solid for more than a decade - for instance: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2005/04/14/scien...

We even know the elastic modulus of the solid inner core: http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/6/eaar2538

The new study by Tkalčić and Phạm is cool work, but it's not even the first observation of PKJKP, so this press coverage is irresponsible. The "perspective" by Irving accompanying the Tkalčić and Phạm paper is pretty readable and BS-free: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6412/294

So why is the earth so old and still incredibly geologically active? Is it simply because of the moon and tidal effects? If the crust is thin relative to other planets why hasn’t the earth cooled more by now?

Two reasons: (1) the earth has really huge thermal inertia (2) radiogenic heat production. (2) often gets a lot of the credit (who doesn't like radioactivity), but (1) is probably doing more of the heavy lifting

At present day, Earth is losing heat at a rate of about 40 terawatts. This 40 terawatts drives mantle convection, plate tectonics, and every volcano out there.

As best we know, about 35% of that 40TW is radiogenic (decay of Th-232 with a half-life of 14 bilion years, U-238 with a half life of 4.5 billion years and K-40 with a half life of 1.25 billion years, among others). A fair amount of the decay energy is actually lost to neutrinos, but the rest is converted to heat and eventually lost by convection or conduction.

The other 65% or so is primordial -- essentially, gravitational potential energy from the accretion of the Earth, converted to heat and slowly lost over the past ~4.51 billion years since the moon-forming impact.

Earth's bulk thermal inertia (heat capacity times mass) is about 5.6E27 J/K. In other words, cooling the earth by one degree C releases 5.6E27 joules. That's a lot of joules!

Even so, there's a bit of a problem because geochemical evidence suggests that the mantle (which makes up most of the earth by volume) has probably not cooled by more than about 150C over the past 3.5 billion years, which means either one of our estimates is wrong, or the core is cooling pretty fast -- this would actually mean that the inner core might be pretty young, like < 1 billion years.

> this would actually mean that the inner core might be pretty young, like < 1 billion years

What are the error bars on that? It seems to be getting quite close to the emergence of complex life, enough that the radiation shielding may be a more important pre-requisite than previously believed.

Big enough that that's a totally reasonable question! I don't think I can even put a number on it very confidently, but maybe something like 1.0 -0.7/+2.0 Ga?

One counterpoint that comes to mind is that the Ediacaran fauna is usually though to be marine, and water is a pretty good shield of radiation. There is one geologist who argues the ediacarans were terrestrial (Greg Retallack), but he interprets any sedimentary rock that's red as a paleosol, which is actually not completely silly, but is a bit more liberal than most others would be comfortable with.

In any case, I don't know, but it's not impossible!

edit: I should also say that the generation of Earth's magnetic field in the liquid outer core is a bunch of incredibly messy magnetohydrodynamics that is hard to simulate accurately, but we can probably have a pretty reasonable magnetic field with a purely liquid core (no solid inner core at all) -- it's the convection of the liquid outer core that provides the energy to sustain the magnetic field, so it's actually once the core becomes fully solid that we'll be in trouble

If radiogenic heating is so important, why are Mars and Mercury not also geologically active? Mercury is only slightly less dense than Earth after all?

Thanks for the response, btw, been waiting for a geologist ama for a while!

Size - Mars and Mercury are both quite a bit smaller than Earth. So they lose heat faster for essentially the same reasons that your cells have to be small: smaller spheres have a higher surface area to volume ratio!

While in neither case is diffusion the only process at work, it's a critical limiting factor in both cases. Diffusion of heat, diffusion of nutrients: it's all the same math!

We get 174400 TW from the Sun (1367W/m2 over the Earth cross-section, which pretty much balances out with the outgoing blackbody radiation at something like 5 deg C IIRC. This would be the surface temperature if there was no internal heating. This slows down cooling of the mantle because there's no cold reservoir for it to cool into.

Radioactive decay of long lived elements in the core.

There's a square cube relation between surface area and volume. Smaller planets have much more surface area compared to volume than larger planets. So it takes a lot longer for heat to escape the core. While smaller planets can radiate their heat away relatively quickly, in the Earth it just builds up.

Venus is of comparable size to Earth. But we don't know very much about Venus' geology. We know that there isn't any active vulcanism on Venus, its crust is all approximately the same age, and is (in geologic and astronomical terms) relatively young. The speculation is that the hot blanket of Venus' atmosphere actually keeps something of a lid on things. The magna isn't so much hotter than the atmosphere that vulcanism is an efficient means of letting off heat. So it just builds up for millennia (hundreds of millions of years? I do not recall the timescale.) until it reaches a critical temperature where most of the entire surface begins melting/venting/erupting. We can't prove it to any significant extent, but it's the model that best fits the evidence.

Tidal dissipation is also a very interesting subject, but the energies involved are lower (about 2.8 TW) and concentrated near the surface of the earth where the heat is lost really fast.

It might be resolved now, but for a while there was a bit of a mystery where tidal dissipation as estimated by the recession rate of the moon (as measured by bouncing lasers off a corner reflector left by the apollo astronauts) was significantly larger than we could account for by modelling oceanic and solid-earth tides.

There's also the issue that if you extrapolate the recession rate of the moon at the present rate, it ends up within the Roche limit less than 2 billion years ago. That's not necessarily catastrophic since solid bodies have cohesion (the ISS is well within the Roche limit, for instance). Nonetheless, it's likely that tidal dissipation is higher now than it was for much of Earth history. This paper may be paywalled but is a pretty recent take ont he subject: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2016.12.038

While Earth is a bit unique within the solar system in having a (relatively) really huge moon, the reason Earth has plate tectonics and Venus doesn't is generally thought to have more to do with a proposed mutual dependence of liquid water and plate tectonics (e.g. https://doi.org/10.1029/GL010i011p01061), since Venus accreted more volatile-depleted than the earth. So while Venus has no shortage of what would be considered young volcanic activity by geologic standards (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volcanism_on_Venus), its crust is stuck in place (a "stagnant lid"). The fact that Earth is a little bit bigger probably doesn't hurt either.

Thanks. We've taken that first-time business out of the title above.

Let me guess. You also think the world is round and not flat!

But seriously, thanks for the additional links and confirming some suspicions.

As a geologist, your favorite movie is still "The Core" right?

Ya, it's a perennial at "bad geoscience movie night"

Thanks. As a general rule, sciencealert isn't worth reading.

There's a whole interesting dynamic that leads to this sort of press release: whenever someone publishes a high-profile Nature or Science paper, they usually have a chance to work with the university communications department to make a press release which goes to out sites like sciencealert. The writer from the communications department usually wants to hype your paper beyond belief, so it falls to you to talk them down (sometimes repeatedly). But if you talk it down too much, then maybe they won't want to do a press release for your next paper, so less press coverage to cite in your tenure case :/ It's a vicious cycle

'our latest understanding is', not 'confirmation'

I won't believe it until we send someone down there The Core-style to poke it with a stick and record a video of the proceedings on their cell phone.

When your latest understanding is based on new evidence consistent with and supportive of your previous understanding, then it is a confirmation. It really isn't necessary to blindly hedge on what we know unless you're willing to call into question the concept of knowledge itself.

This 'confirmation' sure doesn't sound like a five-sigma detection of a new particle at CERN.

Confirmation and truth are not the same here. Confirmation is evidence paralleling expectation.

there is actually no observable proof that anything about the inner inner earth we 'know' is correct. for lack of a better theory and any kind of observations, like with any science, we accept the most likely theory untill it's proven wrong >.> which it might or might not be in the future. to say you know exactly how the core of the earth looks like is just plain silly. it's like saying the universe is infinite or finite. there is no proof or fact. just theory upon theory upon theory. not saying it's bad to theorize, but confirmation? that would be a sample from earths core...... not some wild speculation base on observations of processes very far from what is being theorized about

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