Thermal evolution of Earth with magnesium precipitation in the core

Joseph G. O'Rourke, Jun Korenaga, David J. Stevenson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


Vigorous convection in Earth's core powers our global magnetic field, which has survived for over three billion years. In this study, we calculate the rate of entropy production available to drive the dynamo throughout geologic time using one-dimensional parameterizations of the evolution of Earth's core and mantle. To prevent a thermal catastrophe in models with realistic Urey ratios, we avoid the conventional scaling for plate tectonics in favor of one featuring reduced convective vigor for hotter mantle. We present multiple simulations that capture the effects of uncertainties in key parameters like the rheology of the lower mantle and the overall thermal budget. Simple scaling laws imply that the heat flow across the core/mantle boundary was elevated by less than a factor of two in the past relative to the present. Another process like the precipitation of magnesium-bearing minerals is therefore required to sustain convection prior to the nucleation of the inner core roughly one billion years ago, especially given the recent, upward revision to the thermal conductivity of the core. Simulations that include precipitation lack a dramatic increase in entropy production associated with the formation of the inner core, complicating attempts to determine its age using paleomagnetic measurements of field intensity. Because mantle dynamics impose strict limits on the amount of heat extracted from the core, we find that the addition of radioactive isotopes like potassium-40 implies less entropy production today and in the past. On terrestrial planets like Venus with more sluggish mantle convection, even precipitation of elements like magnesium may not sustain a dynamo if cooling rates are too slow.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)263-272
Number of pages10
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - Jan 15 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Earth, interior
  • heat-flow scaling
  • magnetic field
  • mantle convection
  • thermal budget

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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