The magnetic field is one of Earth’s greatest forces and biggest protector. It shields us from speeding extraterrestrial objects and eases radiation from solar flares. Without the magnetic field, life as we know it would cease to exist. New research found on ancient Australian crystal, zircon, can tell us more about Earth’s magnetic field. Could this mineral be what differentiates us from other planets? If so, how does the sustainability and evolution of the magnetic field lead the future of our planet?
According to researchers from the University of Rochester, the zircons, which are about two-tenths of a millimeter, contain even smaller magnetic particles that lock in the magnetization of the earth at the time the zircons were formed. These crystals were discovered in Australia and are known as the oldest terrestrial material there.
A Look at Earth’s Magnetic Field
It is estimated that our magnetic field is at least 4.2 billion years old and has existed since the origination of our planet. However, Earth’s inner core was a recent addition to the modern magnetic field that wasn’t present then.
The inner core we have today is what powers the outer core ultimately making the magnetic field. If we didn’t have the inner core back then, scientists speculate there must have been a different mechanism at play.
The new zircon data suggests the magnetic field may have been stronger in the past.
“We think that mechanism is chemical precipitation of magnesium oxide within Earth,” says John Tarduno, William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Dean of Research for Arts, Sciences, and Engineering at Rochester.
According to the study, researchers believe Earth exhausted the magnesium oxide source to the point that the magnetic field almost completely collapsed 565 million years ago.
Will Earth Turn Out Like Mars?
Our first magnetic field is different from the one we have today. It is still very protective and highly functional. However, as the poles shift, it is questionable as to how the next changes will unfold. The elements found in zircon provide a great deal of information from the past that can provide clarity as the planet continues to evolve. Whether it includes us or not will depend on how strong the magnetic field remains.
“Once Mars lost its magnetic shielding, it then lost its water,” Tarduno says. “But we still don’t know why the magnetic shielding collapsed. Early magnetic shielding is really important, but we’re also interested in the sustainability of a magnetic field. This study gives us more data in trying to figure out the set of processes that maintain the magnetic shield on Earth.”
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