Partial Melting in the Inner Core

Monday, 15 December 2014: 2:40 PM
John W Hernlund, Earth-Life Science Institute, Meguro, Japan
The inner core boundary (ICB) is often considered to be permeable to flow, because solid iron could melt as it upwells across the ICB. Such a mechanism has been proposed to accompany inner core convective processes (including translation from a freezing to melting hemisphere), and has also been invoked to explain the formation of a dense Fe-rich liquid F-layer above the ICB. However, the conceptions of ICB melting invoked thus far are extremely simplistic, and neglect the many lessons learned from melting in other geological contexts. Owing to some degree of solid solution in relatively incompatible light alloys in solid iron, the onset of melting in the inner core will likely occur as a partial melt, with the liquid being enriched in these light alloys relative to the co-existing solid. Such a partial melt is then subject to upward migration/percolation out of the solid matrix owing to the buoyancy of melt relative to solid. Removal of melt and viscous compaction of the pore space results in an iron-enriched dense solid, whose negative buoyancy will oppose whatever buoyancy forces initially gave rise to upwelling. Either the negative buoyancy will balance these other forces and cause upwelling to cease, or else the solid will become so depleted in light alloys that it is unable to undergo further melting. Thus a proper accounting of partial melting results in a very different melting regime in the inner core, and suppression of upwelling across the ICB. Any fluid that is able to escape into the outer core from inner core partial melting will likely be buoyant because in order to be a melt it should be enriched in incompatiable alloys relative to whatever is freezing at the ICB. Therefore inner core melting is unlikely to contribute to the formation of an F-layer, but instead will tend to de-stabilize it. I will present models that illustrate these processes, and propose that the F-layer is a relic of incomplete mixing of the core during Earth's final stages of formation. Such models imply that the inner core may be somewhat older than models in which it crystallizes from a homogeneous outer core, although without any significant benefits for driving the geodynamo.