Earth’s solid-metal inner core is a key component of the planet, helping to give rise to the magnetic field that protects us from harmful space radiation, but its remoteness from the planet’s surface means that there is much we don’t know about what goes on down there. But some secrets of the inner core are being revealed by acoustic waves passing through the planet’s heart and iron squeezed to enormous pressures in the lab.
Two new studies, both detailed online May 12 in the journal Nature Geoscience, reveal that Earth’s inner core may actually be softer than previously thought, and that the speed at which it spins can fluctuate over time.
Under the liquid-metal outer layer of the Earth’s core is a solid ball of superhot iron and nickel alloy about 760 miles (1,220 kilometers) in diameter. Scientists recently discovered the inner core is, at 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit (6,000 degrees Celsius), as hot as the surface of the sun.
Churning in the liquid outer core results in the dynamo that generates Earth’s magnetic field. Geoscientists think interactions between the inner and outer cores may help explain the nature of the planet’s dynamo, the details of which remain largely unknown.
"The Earth’s inner core is the most remote part of our planet, and so there is a lot we don’t know about it because we can’t go down and collect samples," said Arianna Gleason, a geoscientist at Stanford University in California.