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Outer-core compositional stratification from observed core wave speed profiles

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Abstract

Light elements must be present in the nearly pure iron core of the Earth to match the remotely observed properties of the outer and inner cores1,2. Crystallization of the inner core excludes light elements from the solid, concentrating them in liquid near the inner-core boundary that potentially rises and collects at the top of the core3, and this may have a seismically observable signal. Here we present array-based observations of seismic waves sensitive to this part of the core whose wave speeds require there to be radial compositional variation in the topmost 300 km of the outer core. The velocity profile significantly departs from that of compression of a homogeneous liquid. Total light-element enrichment is up to five weight per cent at the top of the core if modelled in the Fe–O–S system. The stratification suggests the existence of a subadiabatic temperature gradient at the top of the outer core.

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Figure 1: Experiment geometry and paths taken by the seismic waves through the Earth.
Figure 2: Data, velocity profile in the outer core and self-compression profile using the velocity profile.
Figure 3: Compositional variation in the Fe–O–S liquids that match the observed wave speed profile and core density constraints.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by an ERI Visiting Professorship to G.H. We thank A. Jackson for comments and O. Lord for experimental references. Data were provided by the ORFEUS Data Center, de Bilt, the Netherlands, the J-Array data centre, ERI, Tokyo, Japan, and by NIED, Tsukuba, Japan.

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Correspondence to George Helffrich.

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Helffrich, G., Kaneshima, S. Outer-core compositional stratification from observed core wave speed profiles. Nature 468, 807–810 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09636

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