Earth, Climate & Environment

Earth's Interior

The interior of Earth plays an important role in plate tectonics. Scientists believe it is also responsible for Earth’s magnetic field. This field is vital to life because it shields the planet’s surface from harmful cosmic rays and from a steady stream of energetic particles from the Sun known as the solar wind.

Composition of the Interior

Earth’s interior consists of the mantle and the core. The mantle and core make up by far the largest part of Earth’s mass. The distance from the base of the crust to the center of the core is about 6,400 km (about 4,000 mi).

Scientists have learned about Earth’s interior by studying rocks that formed in the interior and rose to the surface. The study of meteorites, which are believed to be made of the same material that formed the Earth and its interior, has also offered clues about Earth’s interior. Finally, seismic waves generated by earthquakes provide geophysicists with information about the composition of the interior. The sudden movement of rocks during an earthquake causes vibrations that transmit energy through the Earth in the form of waves. The way these waves travel through the interior of Earth reveals the nature of materials inside the planet.

The mantle consists of three parts: the lower part of the lithosphere, the region below it known as the asthenosphere, and the region below the asthenosphere called the lower mantle. The entire mantle extends from the base of the crust to a depth of about 2,900 km (about 1,800 mi). Scientists believe the asthenosphere is made up of mushy plastic-like rock with pockets of molten rock. The term asthenosphere is derived from Greek and means “weak layer.” The asthenosphere’s soft, plastic quality allows plates in the lithosphere above it to shift and slide on top of the asthenosphere. This shifting of the lithosphere’s plates is the source of most tectonic activity. The asthenosphere is also the source of the basaltic magma that makes up much of the oceanic crust and rises through volcanic vents on the ocean floor.

The mantle consists of mostly solid iron-magnesium silicate rock mixed with many other minor components including radioactive elements. However, even this solid rock can flow like a “sticky” liquid when it is subjected to enough heat and pressure.

The core is divided into two parts, the outer core and the inner core. The outer core is about 2,260 km (about 1,404 mi) thick. The outer core is a liquid region composed mostly of iron, with smaller amounts of nickel and sulfur in liquid form. The inner core is about 1,220 km (about 758 mi) thick. The inner core is solid and is composed of iron, nickel, and sulfur in solid form. The inner core and the outer core also contain a small percentage of radioactive material. The existence of radioactive material is one of the sources of heat in Earth’s interior because as radioactive material decays, it gives off heat. Temperatures in the inner core may be as high as 6650°C (12,000°F).

The Core and Earth’s Magnetism

Scientists believe that Earth’s liquid iron core is instrumental in creating a magnetic field that surrounds Earth and shields the planet from harmful cosmic rays and the Sun’s solar wind. The idea that Earth is like a giant magnet was first proposed in 1600 by English physician and natural philosopher William Gilbert. Gilbert proposed the idea to explain why the magnetized needle in a compass points north. According to Gilbert, Earth’s magnetic field creates a magnetic north pole and a magnetic south pole. The magnetic poles do not correspond to the geographic North and South poles, however. Moreover, the magnetic poles wander and are not always in the same place. The north magnetic pole is currently close to Ellef Ringnes Island in the Queen Elizabeth Islands near the boundary of Canada’s Northwest Territories with Nunavut. The south magnetic pole lies just off the coast of Wilkes Land, Antarctica.

Not only do the magnetic poles wander, but they also reverse their polarity—that is, the north magnetic pole becomes the south magnetic pole and vice versa. Magnetic reversals have occurred at least 170 times over the past 100 million years. The reversals occur on average about every 200,000 years and take place gradually over a period of several thousand years. Scientists still do not understand why these magnetic reversals occur but think they may be related to Earth’s rotation and changes in the flow of liquid iron in the outer core.

Some scientists theorize that the flow of liquid iron in the outer core sets up electrical currents that produce Earth’s magnetic field. Known as the dynamo theory, this theory appears to be the best explanation yet for the origin of the magnetic field. Earth’s magnetic field operates in a region above Earth’s surface known as the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere is shaped somewhat like a teardrop with a long tail that trails away from the Earth due to the force of the solar wind.

Inside the magnetosphere are the Van Allen radiation belts, named for the American physicist James A. Van Allen who discovered them in 1958. The Van Allen belts are regions where charged particles from the Sun and from cosmic rays are trapped and sent into spiral paths along the lines of Earth’s magnetic field. The radiation belts thereby shield Earth’s surface from these highly energetic particles. Occasionally, however, due to extremely strong magnetic fields on the Sun’s surface, which are visible as sunspots, a brief burst of highly energetic particles streams along with the solar wind. Because Earth’s magnetic field lines converge and are closest to the surface at the poles, some of these energetic particles sneak through and interact with Earth’s atmosphere, creating the phenomenon known as an aurora.