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Earth's Interior

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The Earth, the Sun, and the rest of the solar system, was formed 4.54 billion years ago by accretion from a rotating disk of dust and gas. The immense amount of heat energy released from gravitational energy and from the decay of radioactive elements melted the entire planet, and it is still cooling off today. Denser materials like iron (Fe) sank into the core of the Earth, while lighter silicates (Si), other oxygen (O) compounds, and water rose near the surface.

Earth layers diagram
(J. Louie)
The earth is divided into four main layers: the inner core, outer core, mantle, and crust. The core is composed mostly of iron (Fe) and is so hot that the outer core is molten, with about 10% sulphur (S). The inner core is under such extreme pressure that it remains solid. Most of the Earth's mass is in the mantle, which is composed of iron (Fe), magnesium (Mg), aluminum (Al), silicon (Si), and oxygen (O) silicate compounds. At over 1000 degrees C, the mantle is solid but can deform slowly in a plastic manner. The crust is much thinner than any of the other layers, and is composed of the least dense calcium (Ca) and sodium (Na) aluminum-silicate minerals. Being relatively cold, the crust is rocky and brittle, so it can fracture in earthquakes.

Exploring the Earth's Core

How was the Earth's core discovered? Recordings of seismic waves from earthquakes gave the first clue. Seismic waves will bend and reflect at the interfaces between different materials, just like the prism below refracts and scatters light waves at its faces.
Light refraction through a prism
(original image from the Exploratorium; used by permission)

In addition, the two types of seismic wave behave differently, depending on the material. Compressional P waves will travel and refract through both fluid and solid materials. Shear S waves, however, cannot travel through fluids like air or water. Fluids cannot support the side-to-side particle motion that makes S waves.

Seismic rays and shadow zones
(J. Louie)
Seismologists noticed that records from an earthquake made around the world changed radically once the event was more than a certain distance away, about 105 degrees in terms of the angle between the earthquake and the seismograph as measured at the center of the earth. After 105 degrees the direct P- and S- waves disappeared almost completely, but slow surface waves and waves taking other paths would arrive from over the horizon. The area beyond 105 degrees distance forms a shadow zone. At larger distances, some P waves that travel through the liquid core (path K on the figure above) would arrive, but still no S waves. The Earth has to have a molten, fluid core to explain the lack of S waves in the shadow zone, and the bending of P waves to form their shadow zone.

Diagram to estiamate the size of the core
(J. Louie)
You can get a rough estimate of the size of the Earth's core by simply assuming that the last S wave, before the shadow zone starts at 105 degrees, travels in a straight line. Knowing that the Earth has a radius of about 6370 km, you have a right triangle where the cosine of half of 105 degrees equals the radius of the core divided by the radius of the earth.

The fact that the Earth has a magnetic field is an independent piece of evidence for a molten, liquid core. A compass magnet aligns with the magnetic field anywhere on the Earth. The earth cannot be a large permanent magnet, since magnetic minerals lose their magnetism when they are hotter than about 500 degrees C. Almost all of the earth is hotter, and the only other way to make a magnetic field is with a circulating electric current. Circulation and convection of electrically conductive molten iron in the Earth's outer core produces the magnetic field. To make the magnetic field, the convection must be relatively rapid (much faster than it is in the plastic mantle), so the core must be fluid. Much of the energy to drive this convection comes from growth of the solid inner core, with the release of energy as the iron changes from solid to liquid.

Geodynamo sketch
(J. Louie, after a class chalkboard drawing by David Stevenson)
Because the Earth's magnetic field arises in the unstable patterns of fluid flow in the core, it changes direction at irregular intervals. In recent geologic history it may have switched direction about every 200,000 years. Any kind of geologic deposit (e.g.: lava flows, layered muds) put down over time will thus have different layers magnetized in opposing directions, recording the magnetic field direction as it was when the layer solidified. Geophysicists can measure the changes in direction to make a magnetostratigraphy for the deposit.

At oceanic spreading centers new ocean floor is being created constantly and slowly moved away from the rift. The farther the rock is from the rift, the older it is, and it will also show the magnetic reversals like a tape recording.
Pacific plate evolution
(from Acton and Petronotis, EOS, 1994; Amer. Geophys. Union)
This map of the Pacific Plate at various stages of geologic history could be constructed from the tape recording. Such maps show how the tectonic plates have re-arranged themselves over the last 200 million years.

Exploring the Earth's Mantle

Convection and the release of heat from the Earth's core drives further convection in the mantle. Convection in the mantle drives plate tectonic motions of the sea floor and continents. It is possible to use P waves and S waves traveling through the mantle from earthquakes to map out this convection, much like a hospital CAT scan can map out bones and organs with x-rays.
Cold slabs tomogram
(original image from the Harvard Univ. Seismology Lab; used by permission)
In this view of a flattened-out mantle from the northwest, the blue blobs show where colder, denser material is sinking into the mantle. Near the surface, most of the colder material is in the ancient roots of continental cratons. Subducting slabs of oceanic lithosphere also appear, being recycled into the mantle from oceanic trenches.

Hot plumes tomogram
(original image from the Harvard Univ. Seismology Lab; used by permission)
In this view from the southwest the red blobs are warmer plumes of less dense material, rising principally into the ocean-ridge spreading centers. A huge plume seems to be feeding spreading at the East Pacific Rise directly from the core. Most of the heat being released from the earth's interior emerges at the fast-spreading East Pacific Rise.

Isostacy diagram
(J. Louie)
The part of the mantle near the crust, about 50-100 km down, is especially soft and plastic, and is called the asthenosphere. The mantle and crust above are cool enough to be tough and elastic, and are known as the lithosphere. A heavy load on the crust, like an ice cap, large glacial lake, or mountain range, can bend the lithosphere down into the asthenosphere, which can flow out of the way. The load will sink until it is supported by buoyancy. If an ice cap melts or lake dries up due to climatic changes, or a mountain range erodes away, the lithosphere will buoyantly rise back up over thousands of years. This is the process of isostatic rebound.

Exploring the Earth's Crust

The nearby crust of the Earth can be explored in great detail with echo-sounding techniques, a kind of acoustic radar. These methods give images in cross section very similar to hospital sonograms:
Ultrasound image of a baby Seismic exploration diagram
(J. Louie; M. Hewitt, Soc. of Explor. Geophysicists)
A sonogram in the crust is called a seismic reflection section. Seismic waves from small explosions or thumper trucks send back echoes from rock layers many kilometers down that arrays of seismograph instruments can pick up.

Seismic reflection sections can show blocks of the crust in great detail. Individual layers can be studied for their potential to hold oil, gas, or water; to conduct contaminants from a dump site; or to describe their geologic origin and history.
Visualizing a reflection data volume
(from Soc. of Explor. Geophysicists, The Leading Edge, v. 11, no. 11, p. 13; used by permission)

This study of one layer maps out an ancient network of sandy stream channels, much like the modern channels of the Laramie River, right. Such buried channels can yield oil or gas easily if seismic reflection work can pinpoint their locations.
Stream channels in reflection data Aerial view of Wyoming stream channels
(from Soc. of Explor. Geophysicists, The Leading Edge, v. 12, no. 6, p. 683; v. 11, no. 8, p. 13; used by permission)

Development geophysicists can build detailed models of complex structures having many different formations deformed by all types of faults and folds. With these details they can plan the extraction of oil, gas, coal, or other minerals. They can also predict how ground water may flow through an area, and find the most efficient strategies to clean up contamination.
3-D subsurface structure model
(from Soc. of Explor. Geophysicists, The Leading Edge, v. 10, no. 8, p. 15; used by permission)

Geophysicists can also make maps of other physical properties that rocks show over an area. Gravitational pull, magnetic field strength, electrical conductivity, radioactivity, and spectral reflectance are all properties that may be used to detect particular rock formations of economic or geologic interest, even if they are buried below the surface.

Lineaments in a magnetic map
(from Soc. of Explor. Geophysicists, The Leading Edge, v. 9, no. 9, p. 41; used by permission)
The maps above are derived from maps of magnetic field strength in a part of Nevada. Computerized artificial illumination from the right direction reveals a subtle lineament in the image. A buried, slightly magnetized dike could contain gold ores.

Engineering and Environmental Assessments

Very high-resolution geophysical methods can help geologists wishing to make detailed environmental or engineering studies of rock masses near the surface. Such seismic reflection studies require sources of waves no more powerful than a hammer blow.

Ground-probing radar image
(from Soc. of Explor. Geophysicists, The Leading Edge, v. 9, no. 9, p. 39; used by permission)
The image above is the output of a ground-probing radar, which is very good at locating buried pipes, cavities, fractures, and metallic objects. Here it reveals the detailed structure of a soil layer only 20 m thick, showing channels likely to collect contaminated ground water.

J. Louie, 10 Oct. 1996

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