Swarm tracks elusive ocean magnetism

April 10, 2018, European Space Agency
Hunting for that elusive magnetic signal. Credit: European Space Agency

The magnetic field is arguably one of the most mysterious features of our planet. ESA's Swarm mission is continually yielding more insight into how our protective shield is generated, how it behaves and how it is changing. Adding yet another string to its bow, Swarm is now tracking changes in the magnetic field produced in the oceans in more detail that ever before.

New results from the trio of Swarm satellites are wowing this year's European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna, Austria. This week-long event draws scientists from all over the world to share discoveries about our planet.

Today, the spotlight is firmly on Swarm, and a particular highlight is how the mission is tracking one of Earth's more elusive sources of magnetism.

While the magnetic field is created largely by an of superheated, swirling liquid iron in the planet's outer core, other factors, like magnetised rocks in the crust and the flow of the ocean, also affect the field.

We wouldn't normally think of seawater as being a source of magnetism, but it does make a tiny contribution.

When salty ocean water flows through Earth's magnetic field, an electric current is generated, and this, in turn, induces a magnetic signal.

However, the generated by tides is tiny and extremely difficult to measure – but Swarm has done just this in remarkable detail.

The animation above shows how the tidal magnetic signal changes over 24 hours.

When salty ocean water flows through Earth’s magnetic field, an electric current is generated, and this in turn induces a magnetic signal. However, the field generated by tides is tiny – and extremely difficult to measure, but ESA’s Swarm mission has done just this in remarkable detail. Swarm has been used to measure the magnetic signals of tides from the ocean surface to the seabed, which offers a global picture of how the ocean flows at all depths. The magnetic tidal signal measured by Swarm is important for ocean and climate modelling, and is used to determine the electrical properties of the Earth’s lithosphere and upper mantle. Credit: Planetary Visions (credit: ESA/Planetary Visions)

Nils Olsen, from the Technical University of Denmark, said, "We have used Swarm to measure the magnetic signals of tides from the ocean surface to the seabed, which gives us a truly global picture of how the ocean flows at all depths – and this is new.

"Since oceans absorb heat from the air, tracking how this heat is being distributed and stored, particularly at depth, is important for understanding our changing climate.

Swarm is ESA’s first constellation of Earth observation satellites. The three identical satellites are designed to measure precisely the magnetic signals that stem from Earth’s core, mantle, crust and oceans, as well as its ionosphere and magnetosphere. Carrying a host of sophisticated instruments, the constellation is key to measuring and separating the different sources of magnetism and to making models in unprecedented detail and accuracy. The fact that Swarm is a constellation also means that, for the first time, mantle conductivity can be mapped in 3D from space. The satellites also offer a new way of studying the effect that solar particles have close to Earth. Credit: ESA/AOES Medialab

"In addition, because this tidal magnetic signal also induces a weak magnetic response deep under the seabed, these results will be used to learn more about the electrical properties of Earth's lithosphere and upper mantle."

As well as shedding this new light on magnetic tides, Swarm has also yielded a new map of the generated by Earth's crust.

Explore further: Magnetic oceans and electric Earth

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