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Why is the Earth still hot?

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I. The formation of the Earth created a huge amount of heat

The Earth is thought to have formed from the collision of many rocky asteroids, perhaps hundreds of kilometers in diameter, in the early solar system.

Formation of Solar System

As the proto-Earth gradually bulked up, continuing asteroid collisions and gravitational collapse kept the planet molten.

Heavier elements – in particular iron – would have sunk to the core in 10 to 100 million years’ time, carrying with it other elements that bind to iron.

Radioactive potassium may be major heat source in Earth’s core,  Robert Sanders, UC Berkeley News, 12/13/2003

II. More heat generated when dense material sank down towards the center of Earth

When the Earth was first formed this material was not solid; some was hot enough to become viscous (like silly putty) or even liquid (like lava.)

The denser material was mostly iron and some radioactive metals.

This dense metal slowly sank towards the center, while less dense rock floated upwards.

This process itself created a lot of friction, which created a lot of heat.

“Gradually, however, the Earth would have cooled off and become a dead rocky globe with a cold iron ball at the core if not for the continued release of heat by the decay of radioactive elements like:

potassium-40, uranium-238 and thorium-232, which have half-lives of 1.25 billion, 4 billion and 14 billion years, respectively.

About one in every thousand potassium atoms is radioactive.”

III. Heat from the decay of radioactive elements.

Most metals we know are stable. Think of Nickel, Iron, Copper and Gold. If you put them in a box so that they don’t get exposed to oxygen, then they don’t rust, and never change. Millions of years from now they will still be around.

What’s inside metal atoms? Electrons, protons and neutrons. In a metal atom, the number of these particles will normally never change.

Example: Iron-56 26 protons, 30 neutrons, 26 electrons.
But some very large atoms are special: they not stable – they do change, all by themselves. These are called radioactive elements.

Uranium-238 92 protons, 146 neutrons, 92 electrons

-> spontaneously will change into

Plutonium-239 94 protons, 145 neutrons, 94 electrons + heat
– – –

In sum, there was no shortage of heat in the early earth, and the planet’s inability to cool off quickly results in the continued high temperatures of the Earth’s interior. In effect, not only do the earth’s plates act as a blanket on the interior, but not even convective heat transport in the solid mantle provides a particularly efficient mechanism for heat loss.

The planet does lose some heat through the processes that drive plate tectonics, especially at mid-ocean ridges. For comparison, smaller bodies such as Mars and the Moon show little evidence for recent tectonic activity or volcanism.

We derive our primary estimate of the temperature of the deep earth from the melting behavior of iron at ultrahigh pressures.

We know that the earth’s core depths from 2,886 kilometers to the center at 6,371 kilometers (1,794 to 3,960 miles), is predominantly iron, with some contaminants.

How? The speed of sound through the core (as measured from the velocity at which seismic waves travel across it) and the density of the core are quite similar to those seen in of iron at high pressures and temperatures, as measured in the laboratory. Iron is the only element that closely matches the seismic properties of the earth’s core and is also sufficiently abundant present in sufficient abundance in the universe to make up the approximately 35 percent of the mass of the planet present in the core.

The earth’s core is divided into two separate regions: the liquid outer core and the solid inner core, with the transition between the two lying at a depth of 5,156 kilometers (3,204 miles).

Therefore, If we can measure the melting temperature of iron at the extreme pressure of the boundary between the inner and outer cores, then this lab temperature should reasonably closely approximate the real temperature at this liquid-solid interface. Scientists in mineral physics laboratories use lasers and high-pressure devices called diamond-anvil cells to re-create these hellish pressures and temperatures as closely as possible.

Those experiments provide a stiff challenge, but our estimates for the melting temperature of iron at these conditions range from about 4,500 to 7,500 kelvins (about 7,600 to 13,000 degrees F).

As the outer core is fluid and presumably convecting (and with an additional correction for the presence of impurities in the outer core), we can extrapolate this range of temperatures to a temperature at the base of Earth’s mantle (the top of the outer core) of roughly 3,500 to 5,500 kelvins (5,800 to 9,400 degrees F) at the base of the earth’s mantle.

The bottom line here is simply that a large part of the interior of the planet (the outer core) is composed of somewhat impure molten iron alloy. The melting temperature of iron under deep-earth conditions is high, thus providing prima facie evidence that the deep earth is quite hot.

Gregory Lyzenga is an associate professor of physics at Harvey Mudd College. He provided some additional details on estimating the temperature of the earth’s core:

How do we know the temperature? The answer is that we really don’t–at least not with great certainty or precision. The center of the earth lies 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) beneath our feet, but the deepest that it has ever been possible to drill to make direct measurements of temperature (or other physical quantities) is just about 10 kilometers (six miles).

Ironically, the core of the earth is by far less accessible more inaccessible to direct probing than would be the surface of Pluto. Not only do we not have the technology to “go to the core,” but it is not at all clear how it will ever be possible to do so.

As a result, scientists must infer the temperature in the earth’s deep interior indirectly. Observing the speed at which of passage of seismic waves pass through the earth allows geophysicists to determine the density and stiffness of rocks at depths inaccessible to direct examination.

If it is possible to match up those properties with the properties of known substances at elevated temperatures and pressures, it is possible (in principle) to infer what the environmental conditions must be deep in the earth.

The problem with this is that the conditions are so extreme at the earth’s center that it is very difficult to perform any kind of laboratory experiment that faithfully simulates conditions in the earth’s core.

Nevertheless, geophysicists are constantly trying these experiments and improving on them, so that their results can be extrapolated to the earth’s center, where the pressure is more than three million times atmospheric pressure.

The bottom line of these efforts is that there is a rather wide range of current estimates of the earth’s core temperature. The “popular” estimates range from about 4,000 kelvins up to over 7,000 kelvins (about 7,000 to 12,000 degrees F).

If we knew the melting temperature of iron very precisely at high pressure, we could pin down the temperature of the Earth’s core more precisely, because it is largely made up of molten iron. But until our experiments at high temperature and pressure become more precise, uncertainty in this fundamental property of our planet will persist.

What will happen with the Earth cools?

When the Earth’s core finally does cool – billions of years from now – then Earth will solidify and there will be no more plate tectonics. Therefore there will be

  1. No more earthquakes

  2. No more volcanic eruptions

  3. no more island building

  4. No more mountain building

The Earth’s surface will eventually be eroded down to a flatter surface, marred only by new impact craters. Earth will then be a geologically dead planet, like the Moon.

Some scientists estimate that “The planet is now cooling about 100°C every 1 billion years, so eventually, maybe several billions of years from now, the waning rays of a dying sun will shine down on a tectonically dead planet whose continents are frozen in place.”


How do we know what lies at the Earth’s core?

How we know what lies at the Earth’s core. BBC

Addressing misconceptions

If the Earth’s core is radioactive why is there no radiation at the surface?

Click the link to read the article, but short version, there indeed is radioactivity here on the Earth’s surface!

External resources and discussions

What percent of the Earth’s core is uranium? earthscience.stackexchange.com

Claim: Radioactive decay accounts for half of Earth’s heat, and related, What Keeps the Earth Cooking? Berkeley Lab scientists join their KamLAND colleagues to measure the radioactive sources of Earth’s heat flow

A fascinating although somewhat controversial article, Andrault, Denis & Monteux, J. & Le Bars, Michael & Samuel, H.. (2016). The deep Earth may not be cooling down. Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 443. 10.1016/j.epsl.2016.03.020.



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