Thermochemical Evolution of Earth’s Core with Magnesium Precipitation

Monday, 15 December 2014: 4:00 PM
Joseph G O'Rourke and David J Stevenson, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, United States
Vigorous convection within Earth’s outer core drives a dynamo that has sustained a global magnetic field for at least 3.5 Gyr. Traditionally, people invoke three energy sources for the dynamo: thermal convection from cooling and freezing, compositional convection from light elements expelled by the growing inner core, and, perhaps, radiogenic heating from potassium-40. New theoretical and experimental work, however, indicates that the thermal and electrical conductivities of the outer core may be as much as three times higher than previously assumed. The implied increase in the adiabatic heat flux casts doubt on the ability of the usual mechanisms to explain the dynamo’s longevity. Here, we present a quantitative model of the crystallization of magnesium-bearing minerals from the cooling core—a plausible candidate for the missing power source.

Recent diamond-anvil cell experiments suggest that magnesium can partition into core material if thermodynamic equilibrium is achieved at high temperatures (>5000 K). We develop a model for core/mantle differentiation in which most of the core forms from material equilibrated at the base of a magma ocean as Earth slowly grows, but a small portion (~10%) equilibrated at extreme conditions in the aftermath of a giant impact. We calculate the posterior probability distribution for the original concentrations of magnesium and other light elements (chiefly oxygen and silicon) in the core, constrained by partitioning experiments and the observed depletion of siderophile elements in Earth’s mantle. We then simulate the thermochemical evolution of cores with plausible compositions and thermal structures from the end of accretion to the present, focusing on the crystallization of a few percent of the initial core as ferropericlase and bridgmanite. Finally, we compute the associated energy release and verify that our final core compositions are consistent with the available seismological data.