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Structural and temporal requirements for geomagnetic field reversal deduced from lava flows


Reversals of the Earth's magnetic field reflect changes in the geodynamo—flow within the outer core—that generates the field. Constraining core processes or mantle properties that induce or modulate reversals requires knowing the timing and morphology of field changes that precede and accompany these reversals1,2,3,4. But the short duration of transitional field states and fragmentary nature of even the best palaeomagnetic records make it difficult to provide a timeline for the reversal process1,5. 40Ar/39Ar dating of lavas on Tahiti, long thought to record the primary part of the most recent ‘Matuyama–Brunhes’ reversal, gives an age of 795 ± 7 kyr, indistinguishable from that of lavas in Chile and La Palma that record a transition in the Earth's magnetic field, but older than the accepted age for the reversal. Only the ‘transitional’ lavas on Maui and one from La Palma (dated at 776 ± 2 kyr), agree with the astronomical age for the reversal. Here we propose that the older lavas record the onset of a geodynamo process, which only on occasion would result in polarity change. This initial instability, associated with the first of two decreases in field intensity, began 18 kyr before the actual polarity switch. These data support the claim6 that complete reversals require a significant period for magnetic flux to escape from the solid inner core and sufficiently weaken its stabilizing effect7.

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Figure 1: 40Ar/39Ar age spectra and isochrons from lavas TT, RIT and RIV in Punaruu Valley, Tahiti.
Figure 2: Virtual Geomagnetic Poles (VGPs) and paths of four lava sequences that record transitional directions between 795 and 775 kyr ago.
Figure 3: 40Ar/39Ar ages of 23 transitionally magnetized lava flows and palaeointensity records from 12 marine cores25.


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We thank J. Pickens, M. Relle, A. Battle, L. Powell and R. Allen for assistance with field work, argon and palaeomagnetic analyses, and graphics. This study was supported by the US NSF.

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Correspondence to Brad S. Singer.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Table S1

This file contains a spreadsheet with a single table of argon isotope data and age calculations. Complete 40Ar/39Ar Analyses of transitionally magnetized lava flows from Punaruu Valley, Tahiti. (PDF 20 kb)

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Singer, B., Hoffman, K., Coe, R. et al. Structural and temporal requirements for geomagnetic field reversal deduced from lava flows. Nature 434, 633–636 (2005).

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