The rotation of the Earth’s inner core can reverse

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In 2003, Hollywood released a dubbed disaster movie Core in which the Earth’s core inexplicably stops spinning – threatening to destroy all life as we know it due to the collapse of the magnetic field. To fix this, a group of scientists are tasked with burying themselves under the crust and destroying the core to make it spin again.

It was a really funny and convoluted story, even by Hollywood standards. But it turns out there may be some truth to the idea that the Earth’s core can stop or change its rotation – and even cause strange effects here on the surface.

An international team of scientists has discovered evidence suggesting that the Earth’s inner core may have recently stopped spinning before reversing. While it may not wipe out all life on the planet, the reversal could cause some changes to Earth’s rotation. The study’s paper was published on January 23 in the journal Nature Earth science.

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“It has an effect on the Earth’s magnetic field and rotation, and possibly on surface processes and climate,” Xiaodong Song, a seismologist at the SinoProbe Lab at the School of Earth and Space Sciences of Peking University and co-author of the study, told The Daily Beast in an email. “It’s hard to say right or wrong, but it’s something that needs to be looked at as part of global Earth change.”

When we talk about the Earth’s core, we usually mean two things: the outer core, which is liquid and consists of molten iron and nickel; and the inner core, which is a solid iron-nickel alloy sphere. The inner core is separated from the rest of the Earth by the outer core, so it also rotates differently. Because it is a giant ball of metal, it carries its own electric current, which creates a magnetic field that surrounds our planet and protects us from cosmic radiation. Without this magnetic field, Earth would be a barren, irradiated wasteland.

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The Earth’s core creates a magnetic field that surrounds our planet and protects us from cosmic radiation. Without this magnetic field, Earth would be a barren, irradiated wasteland.

TUMEGGY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY by Getty

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The Earth’s core creates a magnetic field that surrounds our planet and protects us from cosmic radiation. Without this magnetic field, Earth would be a barren, irradiated wasteland.

TUMEGGY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY by Getty

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The Earth’s core creates a magnetic field that surrounds our planet and protects us from cosmic radiation. Without this magnetic field, Earth would be a barren, irradiated wasteland.

TUMEGGY/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via Getty

So the study of the core is not just a favorite project to better understand the behavior of the Earth; it is also necessary to inform us of potential changes that may affect life on the surface.

To achieve their findings, Song and his co-author (Peking University researcher Yi Yang) measured changes in both the waveform and travel time of seismic waves from earthquakes that have passed through the inner core since the 1960s. They found that “temporal waveform changes simultaneously and consistently disappeared” around 2009, suggesting that the inner core had stopped rotating.

However, Song said they also observed a “small but clear reverse trend” in the waveforms, suggesting that the inner core may have started to reverse its rotation. The authors believe this may be part of a seven-year cycle in which the core spins and turns. This cycle coincides with changes in the Earth’s magnetic field.

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But Song adds that “we haven’t seen the full cycle of the predicted seventy-year oscillation” and the team will “push to newer data to test models and predictions.”

Fortunately for us, scientists have also made it clear that we are unlikely to encounter any end-of-the-world scenarios. The reversal will also not strongly affect the Earth’s magnetic field, resulting in a polar reversal where north becomes south and vice versa.

“The rotation of the inner core is more related to periodic fluctuations in magnetic field changes,” Song said. “The fluctuations are too small to change the sign from positive to negative.”

Still, it might be a good idea to assemble a team of scientists in case we need to blow up the core for whatever reason. Maybe Elon Musk’s Boring Company will finally have something useful to do.

Read more in The Daily Beast.

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