Earth’s Insides are Cooling Faster than Expected

A team of researchers has developed a measuring system that measures the thermal conductivity of bridgmanite in the laboratory under pressure and temperature conditions similar to those found inside the Earth.

The research was published in the journal — Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The story of our planet’s cooling is the story of its evolution: Extreme temperatures prevailed on the surface of the young Earth 4.5 billion years ago, and it was covered by a deep ocean of magma. The planet’s surface cooled over millions of years, forming a brittle crust. The enormous thermal energy emitted from the Earth’s interior, on the other hand, set in motion dynamic processes such as mantle convection, plate tectonics, and volcanism.

The questions of how quickly the Earth cooled and how long it will take for this ongoing cooling to bring the aforementioned heat-driven processes to a halt remain unanswered.

The thermal conductivity of the minerals that form the boundary between the Earth’s core and mantle could be one answer.

This boundary layer is significant because it is here that the Earth’s mantle’s viscous rock comes into direct contact with the planet’s outer core’s hot iron-nickel melt. Because the temperature difference between the two layers is so great, there could be a lot of heat flowing here. The mineral bridgmanite makes up the majority of the boundary layer. However, because experimental verification is difficult, researchers are having difficulty estimating how much heat this mineral conducts from the Earth’s core to the mantle.

Now, ETH Professor Motohiko Murakami and his Carnegie Institution for Science colleagues have developed a sophisticated measuring system that allows them to measure the thermal conductivity of bridgmanite in the laboratory under pressure and temperature conditions similar to those found inside the Earth.

They used a newly developed optical absorption measurement system in a diamond unit heated with a pulsed laser for the tests. “We were able to demonstrate that the thermal conductivity of bridgmanite is about 1.5 times higher than previously thought,” said ETH Professor Motohiko Murakami. 

This implies that the heat transfer from the core to the mantle is also greater than previously assumed. As a result of the increased heat transfer, mantle convection increases, speeding up the cooling of the Earth. This could lead plate tectonics, which is propelled by the mantle’s convective motions, to slow down faster than experts anticipated based on past heat conduction values.

Murakami and colleagues also discovered that fast cooling of the mantle alters the stable mineral phases at the core-mantle interface. When bridgmanite cools, it transforms into the mineral post-perovskite. However, the researchers believe that after post-perovskite forms at the core-mantle border and begins to dominate, the cooling of the mantle would speed much more, as this mineral conducts heat even more efficiently than bridgmanite.

“Our findings may provide new insight into the evolution of Earth’s dynamics. They claim that Earth, like Mercury and Mars, is cooling and becoming inactive far faster than previously thought “Murakami elaborated.

He couldn’t say how long it would take for convection currents in the mantle, for example, to halt. He stated, “We still don’t know enough about these kinds of events to pin down their timing.”

To do so, scientists must first have a better grasp of how mantle convection operates in terms of space and time. Furthermore, scientists must determine how the decay of radioactive materials in the Earth’s interior – one of the primary sources of heat – influenced the mantle’s dynamics.

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