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Earth’s inner core, ancient or modern

The thermal conductivity of iron and its alloys at high pressure and temperature is a critical factor in the evolution and dynamics of Earth-like planets. Recently, increasing uncertainty in these values has produced dramatically variable predictions for Earth’s history that challenge traditional geophysical theories. Two groups reporting in this issue of Nature use laser-heated diamond-anvil cells to study the properties of iron at the extreme temperatures and pressures relevant to Earth’s core, but using different methodologies, and they arrive at contrasting results. Kenji Ohta and co-authors measured the electrical resistivity of iron at up to 4,500 kelvin and obtained an estimate that is even lower than the low values predicted from recent ab initio studies. They conclude that this suggests a high thermal conductivity for Earth’s core, which would imply rapid core cooling by conduction and a relatively young inner core. Zuzana Konôpková and co-authors measured heat pulses propagating through solid iron after heating with a laser pulse at pressures and temperatures relevant to the cores of planets ranging in size from Mercury to Earth. Their measurements place the thermal conductivity of Earth’s core near the low end of previous estimates, implying that thermal convection in Earth’s core could have driven the geodynamo for billions of years, and allowing for an ancient inner core. In a linked News & Views, David Dobson discusses the interpretation of these two tours de force of experimental geophysics.

Nature Volume 534 Issue 7605

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