Earth’s magnetic field, long thought to be generated by molten metals swirling around its core, may instead be produced by ocean currents, according to controversial new research published this week.
It suggests that the movements of such volumes of salt water around the world have been seriously underestimated by scientists as a source of magnetism.
If proven, the research would revolutionise geophysics, the study of the Earth’s physical properties and behaviour, in which the idea that magnetism originates in a molten core is a central tenet.
Earth’s magnetic field is vital for life, extending tens of thousands of miles into space and protecting the planet against radiation that would otherwise burn away the atmosphere and oceans.
However, its origin was a mystery until early last century when Albert Einstein said understanding the phenomenon was one of science’s most important tasks. This provoked a debate which concluded with scientists agreeing that magnetism must originate in the Earth’s core.
“Everyone accepted this, but in reality there has never been any proof,” said Gregory Ryskin, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University in Illinois. “It is just an idea we have accepted for a long time without questioning it enough.”
His research suggests that Earth’s magnetism is actually linked to ocean movements. The salt in seawater allows it to conduct electricity, meaning it generates electrical and magnetic fields as it moves.
The findings, published by Britain’s Institute of Physics’s New Journal of Physics, will cause a fierce scientific debate.
400 years of discussion and we’re still not sure what creates the Earth’s magnetic field, and thus the magnetosphere, despite the importance of the latter as the only buffer between us and deadly solar wind of charged particles (made up of electrons and protons). New research raises question marks about the forces behind the magnetic field and the structure of Earth itself.
The controversial new paper published in New Journal of Physics (co-owned by the Institute of Physics and the German Physical Society), ‘Secular variation of the Earth’s magnetic field: induced by the ocean flow?’, will deflect geophysicists’ attention from postulated motion of conducting fluids in the Earth’s core, the twentieth century’s answer to the mysteries of geomagnetism and magnetosphere.
Professor Gregory Ryskin from the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University in Illinois, US, has defied the long-standing convention by applying equations from magnetohydrodynamics to our oceans’ salt water (which conducts electricity) and found that the long-term changes (the secular variation) in the Earth’s main magnetic field are possibly induced by our oceans’ circulation.
– via PhysOrg