The moon thought to play a major role in maintaining Earth's magnetic field

March 31, 2016
The moon thought to play a major role in maintaining earth's magnetic field
The gravitational effects associated with the presence of the Moon and Sun cause cyclical deformation of the Earth's mantle and wobbles in its rotation axis. This mechanical forcing applied to the whole planet causes strong currents in the outer core, which is made up of a liquid iron alloy of very low viscosity. Such currents are enough to generate the Earth's magnetic field. Credit: Julien Monteux and Denis Andrault.

The Earth's magnetic field permanently protects us from the charged particles and radiation that originate in the sun. This shield is produced by the geodynamo, the rapid motion of huge quantities of liquid iron alloy in the Earth's outer core. To maintain this magnetic field until the present day, the classical model required the Earth's core to have cooled by around 3,000° C over the past 4.3 billion years. Now, a team of researchers from CNRS and Université Blaise Pascal1 suggests that, on the contrary, its temperature has fallen by only 300° C. The action of the moon, overlooked until now, is thought to have compensated for this difference and kept the geodynamo active. Their work is published on 30 march 2016 in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The classical model of the formation of Earth's magnetic field raised a major paradox. For the geodynamo to work, the Earth would have had to be totally molten four billion years ago, and its core would have had to slowly cool from around 6800° C at that time to 3800° C today. However, recent modeling of the early evolution of the internal temperature of the planet, together with geochemical studies of the composition of the oldest carbonatites and basalts, do not support such cooling. With such high temperatures being ruled out, the researchers propose another source of energy in their study.

The Earth has a slightly flattened shape and rotates about an inclined axis that wobbles around the poles. Its mantle deforms elastically due to tidal effects caused by the moon. The researchers show that this effect could continuously stimulate the motion of the liquid iron alloy making up the outer core, and in return generate Earth's magnetic field. The Earth continuously receives 3700 billion watts of power through the transfer of the gravitational and rotational energy of the Earth-moon-sun system, and over 1,000 billion watts is thought to be available to bring about this type of motion in the outer core. This energy is enough to generate the Earth's magnetic field, which together with the moon, resolves the major paradox in the classical theory. The effect of gravitational forces on a planet's has already been well documented for two of Jupiter's moons, Io and Europa, and for a number of exoplanets.

Since neither the Earth's rotation around its axis, nor the direction of its axis, nor the moon's orbit are perfectly regular, their combined effect on motion in the core is unstable and can cause fluctuations in the geodynamo. This process could account for certain heat pulses in the and at its boundary with the Earth's mantle.

Over the course of time, this may have led to peaks in deep mantle melting and possibly to major volcanic events at the Earth's surface. This new model shows that the moon's effect on the Earth goes well beyond merely causing tides.

Explore further: New theory suggests magnesium could be the key to understanding Earth's magnetic field

More information: Denis Andrault et al. The deep Earth may not be cooling down, Earth and Planetary Science Letters (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2016.03.020

Related Stories

Ancient lunar dynamo may explain magnetized moon rocks

November 9, 2011

The presence of magnetized rocks on the surface of the moon, which has no global magnetic field, has been a mystery since the days of the Apollo program. Now a team of scientists has proposed a novel mechanism that could ...

Recommended for you

The birth and death of a tectonic plate

May 24, 2017

Several hundred miles off the Pacific Northwest coast, a small tectonic plate called the Juan de Fuca is slowly sliding under the North American continent. This subduction has created a collision zone with the potential to ...

Sub-zero waters a barrier to oil spill recovery

May 24, 2017

Sub-zero temperatures in the deep waters of the North Atlantic would significantly hamper the ability of oil-eating bacteria to help the ocean recover from a major oil spill, according to new research.

8 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Nik_2213
5 / 5 (3) Mar 31, 2016
IIRC, this process has been suggested many times, but lacked evidence...

If proven, it does rather impinge on 'Drake Equation' factors. The odds of getting a suitable 'Big Moon' around a conveniently Earth-sized, rocky but damp planet in the long-term habitable zone has just shrunk by an order of magnitude...

IMHO, it also impinges on the 'Where Are They' question-- Given our Earth/Moon's rarity, who'd look for intelligent life around anything other than a mega-moon of a gas-giant or super-earth ??
Eikka
3 / 5 (4) Mar 31, 2016
If proven, it does rather impinge on 'Drake Equation' factors.


That isn't to say the other mechanism, or yet other unknown mechanisms for maintaining a magnetic field can't work.

Just that it hasn't happened here.

The anthropic fallacy is really in imagining that we define life, rather than life defines us. That's what makes otherwise perfectly rational people say nonsense like "If the weak force was even a tiny bit less then life could not exist". That's a complete non-sequitur, and so is the assumption that life on other planets, or other habitable planets per se in this universe must come about the same way we/ours did.

Phil DePayne
5 / 5 (1) Mar 31, 2016
Who says moons are not at all common? Telescope resolution just hasn't come to the point of discovery. Think of Shapley-Curtis debates of 100 years ago, the solution was better observational techniques. Moons may be providing a potential for life wherever tidal energy is, even outside of habitable zones.
rhugh1066
3 / 5 (2) Mar 31, 2016
I wonder if this concept would play into our periodically-shifting magnetic poles?
BendBob
1 / 5 (3) Mar 31, 2016
I recall my Earth Sci class discussing that the moon is being slowly lost, so I looked and here is a nice tidbit: it is "getting larger, at a rate of about 3.8 centimeters per year".
http://curious.as...rmediate

Can the magnetic field along with the earth's gravity keep the moon in a useful orbit for a long time?
Phys1
5 / 5 (4) Mar 31, 2016
@BendBob
The Earth's magnetic field is irrelevant to the Moon's orbit.
winthrom
3 / 5 (2) Mar 31, 2016
LARGE Moon might be what was missing on Venus and Mars.
antigoresockpuppet
5 / 5 (2) Apr 01, 2016
Is that more anti-intellectualism courtesy of the anti-AGW goons? Only those challenged to understand basic atmospheric science would wonder why Venus isn't habitable. I guess once you deny the role of CO2 it becomes a big hairy mystery.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.