Inner core

Earth cutaway from core to exosphere. Partially to scale.

The inner core of the Earth, its innermost hottest part as detected by seismological studies, is a primarily solid ball about 1,220 km (760 mi) in radius,[1] or about 70% that of the Moon. It is believed to consist of an ironnickel alloy, and may have a temperature similar to the Sun's surface, approximately 5778 K (5505 °C).[2]



The existence of an inner core distinct from the liquid outer core was discovered in 1936 by seismologist Inge Lehmann[3] using observations of earthquake-generated seismic waves that partly reflect from its boundary and can be detected by sensitive seismographs on the Earth's surface. This boundary is referred as Bullen discontinuity[4] or sometimes Lehmann discontinuity.[5] Later (1940) it was conjectured that this inner core was solid iron, and its rigidity was confirmed in 1971.[6]

The outer core was believed to be liquid due to its inability to transmit elastic shear waves; only compressional waves are observed to pass through it.[7] The solidity of the inner core has been difficult to establish because the elastic shear waves that are expected to pass through it are very weak and difficult to detect. Dziewonski and Gilbert established the consistency of this hypothesis using normal modes of vibration of Earth caused by large earthquakes.[8] Recent claims of detections of inner core transmitted shear waves were initially controversial but are now gaining acceptance.[9]


Based on the abundance of chemical elements in the solar system, the theory of planetary formation, and other chemical constraints regarding the remainder of Earth's volume, the inner core is composed primarily of a nickel–iron alloy referred to as Nife: 'Ni' for nickel, and 'Fe' for ferrum or iron.[10] Because the inner core is more dense (12.8 ~ 13.1)gcm³[11] than pure iron or nickel, even under heavy pressures, it's believed that the remaining part of the core is composed of gold, platinum and other siderophile elements in quantity enough to coat Earth's surface for 0.45 m (1.5 feet).[12] The relative abundance of precious metals and other heavy elements respect to Earth's crust is explained with the theory of iron catastrophe, an event occurred before the first eon during the accretion of early Earth.


The temperature of the inner core can be estimated using experimental and theoretical constraints on the melting temperature of impure iron at the pressure (about 330 GPa) of the inner core boundary, yielding estimates of 5,700 K (5,430 °C; 9,800 °F).[13] The range of pressure in Earth's inner core is about 330 to 360 gigapascals (3,300,000 to 3,600,000 atm),[14] and iron can only be solid at such high temperatures because its melting temperature increases dramatically at these high pressures (see the Clausius–Clapeyron relation).[15]


J. A. Jacobs [16] was the first to suggest that the inner core is freezing and growing out of the liquid outer core due to the gradual cooling of Earth's interior (about 100 degrees Celsius per billion years[17]). Prior to the inner core's formation, the entire core was molten, and the age of the inner core is thought to lie between 2–4 billion years. Because it is younger than the age of Earth (about 4.5 billion years), the inner core cannot be a primordial feature inherited during the formation of the solar system[citation needed].


Little is known about how the inner core grows. Because it is slowly cooling, many scientists expected that the inner core would be homogeneous. It was even suggested that Earth's inner core may be a single crystal of iron;[18] however, this is at odds with the observed degree of disorder inside the inner core.[19] Seismologists have revealed that the inner core is not completely uniform and contains large-scale structures that seismic waves pass more rapidly through than others.[20] The surface of the inner core exhibits rapid variations in properties at scales at least as small as 1 km. This is puzzling, since lateral temperature variations along the inner core boundary are known to be extremely small (this conclusion is confidently constrained by magnetic field observations). Recent discoveries suggest that the solid inner core itself is composed of layers, separated by a transition zone about 250 to 400 km thick.[21] If the inner core grows by small frozen sediments falling onto its surface, then some liquid can also be trapped in the pore spaces and some of this residual fluid may still persist to some small degree in much of its interior.

Because the inner core is not rigidly connected to Earth's solid mantle, the possibility that it rotates slightly faster or slower than the rest of Earth has long been entertained.[citation needed] In the 1990s, seismologists made various claims about detecting this kind of super-rotation by observing changes in the characteristics of seismic waves passing through the inner core over several decades, using the aforementioned property that it transmits waves faster in some directions. Estimates of this super-rotation are around one degree of extra rotation per year, although others have concluded it is rotating more slowly than the rest of Earth by a similar amount.[citation needed]

Growth of the inner core is thought to play an important role in the generation of Earth's magnetic field by dynamo action in the liquid outer core. This occurs mostly because it cannot dissolve the same amount of light elements as the outer core and therefore freezing at the inner core boundary produces a residual liquid that contains more light elements than the overlying liquid. This causes it to become buoyant and helps drive convection of the outer core.[citation needed] The existence of the inner core also changes the dynamic motions of liquid in the outer core as it grows and may help fix the magnetic field since it is expected to be a great deal more resistant to flow than the outer core liquid (which is expected to be turbulent).[citation needed]

Speculation also continues that the inner core might have exhibited a variety of internal deformation patterns. This may be necessary to explain why seismic waves pass more rapidly in some directions than in others. Because thermal convection alone appears to be improbable,[22] any buoyant convection motions will have to be driven by variations in composition or abundance of liquid in its interior. S. Yoshida and colleagues proposed a novel mechanism whereby deformation of the inner core can be caused by a higher rate of freezing at the equator than at polar latitudes,[23] and S. Karato proposed that changes in the magnetic field might also deform the inner core slowly over time.[24]

There is an East–West asymmetry[clarification needed] in the inner core seismological data. There is a model which explains this by differences at the surface of the inner core – melting in one hemisphere and crystallization in the other.[25]

See also


  1. ^ Monnereau, Marc; Calvet, Marie; Margerin, Ludovic; Souriau, Annie (May 21, 2010), "Lopsided Growth of Earth's Inner Core", Science 328 (5981): 1014–1017, doi:10.1126/science.1186212 
  2. ^ E. R. Engdahl; E. A. Flynn and R. P. Massé (1974). "Differential PkiKP travel times and the radius of the core". Geophys. J. R. Astr. Soc. 40 (3): 457–463. doi:10.1111/j.1365-246X.1974.tb05467.x. 
  3. ^ Edmond A. Mathez, ed (2000). EARTH: INSIDE AND OUT. American Museum of Natural History. 
  4. ^ John C. Butler (1995). "Class Notes - The Earth's Interior". Physical Geology Grade Book. University of Houston. Retrieved 30 August 2011. 
  5. ^ Although another discontinuity is named after Lehmann, this usage still can be found: see for example: Robert E Krebs (2003). The basics of earth science. Greenwood Publishing Company. ISBN 0313319308. , and From here to "hell," or the D layer,
  6. ^ Hung Kan Lee (2002). International handbook of earthquake and engineering seismology; volume 1. Academic Press. p. 926. ISBN 0124406521. 
  7. ^ William J. Cromie (1996-08-15). "Putting a New Spin on Earth's Core". Harvard Gazette. Retrieved 2007-05-22. 
  8. ^ A. M. Dziewonski and F. Gilbert (1971-12-24). "Solidity of the Inner Core of the Earth inferred from Normal Mode Observations" (abstract). Nature 234 (5330): 465–466. doi:10.1038/234465a0. 
  9. ^ Robert Roy Britt (2005-04-14). "Finally, a Solid Look at Earth's Core". Retrieved 2007-05-22. 
  10. ^ Lars Stixrude; Evgeny Waserman and Ronald Cohen (November 1997). "Composition and temperature of Earth's inner core". Journal of Geophysical Research (American Geophysical Union) 102 (B11): 24729–24740. Bibcode 1997JGR...10224729S. doi:10.1029/97JB02125. 
  11. ^ Eugene C. Robertson (January 2011). The Interior of the earth. United States Geological Survey. 
  12. ^ Wootton, Anne (September 2006) "Earth's Inner Fort Knox" Discover 27(9): p.18;
  13. ^ D. Alfè; M. Gillan and G. D. Price (January 30, 2002). "Composition and temperature of the Earth’s core constrained by combining ab initio calculations and seismic data" (PDF). Earth and Planetary Science Letters (Elsevier) 195 (1-2): 91–98. Bibcode 2002E&PSL.195...91A. doi:10.1016/S0012-821X(01)00568-4. 
  14. ^ David. R. Lide, ed (2006-2007). CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (87th ed.). pp. 14–13. 
  15. ^ Anneli Aitta (2006-12-01). "Iron melting curve with a tricritical point". Journal of Statistical Mechanics: Theory and Experiment (iop) 2006 (12): 12015–12030. doi:10.1088/1742-5468/2006/12/P12015.  or see preprints , .
  16. ^ J.A. Jacobs (1953). "The Earth’s inner core". Nature 172 (4372): 297–298. doi:10.1038/172297a0. 
  17. ^ van Hunen, J.; van den Berg, A.P. (2007). "Plate tectonics on the early Earth: Limitations imposed by strength and buoyancy of subducted lithosphere". Lithos 103 (1-2): 217–235. doi:10.1016/j.lithos.2007.09.016. 
  18. ^ Broad, William J. (1995-04-04). "The Core of the Earth May Be a Gigantic Crystal Made of Iron". NY Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2010-12-21. 
  19. ^ Robert Sanders (1996-11-13). "Earth's inner core not a monolithic iron crystal, say UC Berkeley seismologist". Retrieved 2007-05-22. 
  20. ^ Andrew Jephcoat and Keith Refson (2001-09-06). "Earth science: Core beliefs". Nature 413 (6851): 27–30. doi:10.1038/35092650. PMID 11544508. 
  21. ^ Kazuro Hirahara; Toshiki Ohtaki and Yasuhiro Yoshida (1994). "Seismic structure near the inner core-outer core boundary". Geophys. Res. Lett. (American Geophysical Union) 51 (16): 157–160. Bibcode 1994GeoRL..21..157K. doi:10.1029/93GL03289. 
  22. ^ T. Yukutake (1998). "Implausibility of thermal convection in the Earth’s solid inner core.". Phys. Earth Planet. Int. 108 (1): 1–13. Bibcode 1998PEPI..108....1Y. doi:10.1016/S0031-9201(98)00097-1. 
  23. ^ S.I. Yoshida; I. Sumita and M. Kumazawa (1996). "Growth model of the inner core coupled with the outer core dynamics and the resulting elastic anisotropy". Journal of Geophysical Research B 101: 28085–28103. Bibcode 1996JGR...10128085Y. doi:10.1029/96JB02700. 
  24. ^ S. I. Karato (1999). "Seismic anisotropy of the Earth’s inner core resulting from flow induced by Maxwell stresses". Nature 402 (6764): 871–873. doi:10.1038/47235. 
  25. ^ Alboussière, T.; Deguen, R.; Melzani, M. (2010). "Melting-induced stratification above the Earth’s inner core due to convective translation". Nature 466 (7307): 744. Bibcode 2010Natur.466..744A. doi:10.1038/nature09257. PMID 20686572.  edit

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