Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Bottom-up control of geomagnetic secular variation by the Earth’s inner core


Temporal changes in the Earth’s magnetic field, known as geomagnetic secular variation, occur most prominently at low latitudes in the Atlantic hemisphere1,2 (that is, from −90 degrees east to 90 degrees east), whereas in the Pacific hemisphere there is comparatively little activity. This is a consequence of the geographical localization of intense, westward drifting, equatorial magnetic flux patches at the core surface3. Despite successes in explaining the morphology of the geomagnetic field4, numerical models of the geodynamo have so far failed to account systematically for this striking pattern of geomagnetic secular variation. Here we show that it can be reproduced provided that two mechanisms relying on the inner core are jointly considered. First, gravitational coupling5 aligns the inner core with the mantle, forcing the flow of liquid metal in the outer core into a giant, westward drifting, sheet-like gyre6. The resulting shear concentrates azimuthal magnetic flux at low latitudes close to the core–mantle boundary, where it is expelled by core convection and subsequently transported westward. Second, differential inner-core growth7,8, fastest below Indonesia6,9, causes an asymmetric buoyancy release in the outer core which in turn distorts the gyre, forcing it to become eccentric, in agreement with recent core flow inversions6,10,11. This bottom-up heterogeneous driving of core convection dominates top-down driving from mantle thermal heterogeneities, and localizes magnetic variations in a longitudinal sector centred beneath the Atlantic, where the eccentric gyre reaches the core surface. To match the observed pattern of geomagnetic secular variation, the solid material forming the inner core must now be in a state of differential growth rather than one of growth and melting induced by convective translation7,8.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Geographical localization of geomagnetic secular variation.
Figure 2: Maps of the magnetic field and secular variation.
Figure 3: Temporal evolution of magnetic structures at the Equator.
Figure 4: Internal fluid flow and magnetic structure.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Jackson, A., Jonkers, A. R. T. & Walker, M. R. Four centuries of geomagnetic secular variation from historical records. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 358, 957–990 (2000)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Holme, R., Olsen, N. & Bairstow, F. L. Mapping geomagnetic secular variation at the core-mantle boundary. Geophys. J. Int. 186, 521–528 (2011)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  3. Finlay, C. C. & Jackson, A. Equatorially dominated magnetic field change at the surface of Earth’s core. Science 300, 2084–2086 (2003)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Christensen, U. R., Aubert, J. & Hulot, G. Conditions for Earth-like geodynamo models. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 296, 487–496 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Buffett, B. Gravitational oscillations in the length of day. Geophys. Res. Lett. 23, 2279–2282 (1996)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. Aubert, J. Flow throughout the Earth’s core inverted from geomagnetic observations and numerical dynamo models. Geophys. J. Int. 192, 537–556 (2013)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Monnereau, M., Calvet, M., Margerin, L. & Souriau, A. Lopsided growth of Earth’s inner core. Science 328, 1014–1017 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Alboussière, T., Deguen, R. & Melzani, M. Melting-induced stratification above the Earth’s inner core due to convective translation. Nature 466, 744–747 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  9. Aubert, J., Amit, H., Hulot, G. & Olson, P. Thermochemical flows couple the Earth’s inner core growth to mantle heterogeneity. Nature 454, 758–761 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Pais, M. A. & Jault, D. Quasi-geostrophic flows responsible for the secular variation of the Earth’s magnetic field. Geophys. J. Int. 173, 421–443 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Gillet, N., Pais, M. A. & Jault, D. Ensemble inversion of time-dependent core flow models. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 10, Q06004 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. Olsen, N., Mandea, M., Sabaka, T. J. & Toffner-Clausen, L. The CHAOS-3 geomagnetic field model and candidates for the 11th generation IGRF. Earth Planets Space 62, 719–727 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. Lesur, V., Wardinski, I., Hamoudi, M. & Rother, M. The second generation of the GFZ Reference Internal Magnetic Model: GRIMM-2. Earth Planets Space 62, 765–773 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Finlay, C. C., Jackson, A., Gillet, N. & Olsen, N. Core surface magnetic field evolution 2000–2010. Geophys. J. Int. 189, 761–781 (2012)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Fournier, A. et al. An introduction to data assimilation and predictability in geomagnetism. Space Sci. Rev. 155, 247–291 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  16. Christensen, U. R. & Wicht, J. in Treatise on Geophysics Vol. 8, Core Dynamics (ed. Schubert, G. ) Ch. 8 (Elsevier, 2007)

    Google Scholar 

  17. Kuang, W. & Bloxham, J. An Earth-like numerical dynamo model. Nature 389, 371–374 (1997)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Sakuraba, A. & Roberts, P. H. Generation of a strong magnetic field using uniform heat flux at the surface of the core. Nature Geosci. 2, 802–805 (2009)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Miyagoshi, T., Kageyama, A. & Sato, T. Zonal flow formation in the Earth’s core. Nature 463, 793–796 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Christensen, U. R. & Olson, P. Secular variation in numerical geodynamo models with lateral variations of boundary heat flux. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 138, 39–54 (2003)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Glatzmaier, G. A. & Roberts, P. H. Rotation and magnetism of Earth’s inner core. Science 274, 1887–1891 (1996)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Buffett, B. A. & Glatzmaier, G. A. Gravitational braking of inner-core rotation in geodynamo simulations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 27, 3125–3128 (2000)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  23. Aubert, J. & Dumberry, M. Steady and fluctuating inner core rotation in numerical geodynamo models. Geophys. J. Int. 184, 162–170 (2011)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. Dumberry, M. Geodynamic constraints on the steady and time-dependent inner core axial rotation. Geophys. J. Int. 170, 886–895 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. Gubbins, D., Sreenivasan, B., Mound, J. & Rost, S. Melting of the Earth’s inner core. Nature 473, 361–363 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Davies, C. J., Silva, L. & Mound, J. E. On the influence of a translating inner core in models of outer core convection. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 214, 104–114 (2013)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. Olson, P. & Deguen, R. Eccentricity of the geomagnetic dipole caused by lopsided inner core growth. Nature Geosci. 5, 565–569 (2012)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. Masters, G., Laske, G., Bolton, H. & Dziewonski, A. in Earth’s Deep Interior (eds Karato, S., Forte, A., Liebermann, R. C., Masters, G. & Stixrude, L. ) 63–87 (AGU Monograph Vol. 117, American Geophysical Union, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

  29. Helffrich, G. & Kaneshima, S. Outer-core compositional stratification from observed core wave speed profiles. Nature 468, 807–810 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Gubbins, D. & Davies, C. J. The stratified layer at the core-mantle boundary caused by baro-diffusion of oxygen, sulphur and silicon. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 215, 21–28 (2013)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Aubert, J., Labrosse, S. & Poitou, C. Modelling the palaeo-evolution of the geodynamo. Geophys. J. Int. 179, 1414–1428 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  32. Lhuillier, F., Fournier, A., Hulot, G. & Aubert, J. The geomagnetic secular-variation timescale in observations and numerical dynamo models. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L09306 (2011)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  33. Christensen, U. R. & Aubert, J. Scaling properties of convection-driven dynamos in rotating spherical shells and application to planetary magnetic fields. Geophys. J. Int. 166, 97–114 (2006)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  34. Ahrens, T. J. Global Earth Physics: A Handbook of Physical Constants Vol. 1 (AGU, 1995)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  35. Sabaka, T. J., Olsen, N. & Purucker, M. Extending comprehensive models of the Earth’s magnetic field with Oersted and CHAMP data. Geophys. J. Int. 159, 521–547 (2004)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported by the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche (grant ANR-2011-BS56-011). Numerical computations were performed at S-CAPAD, IPGP, France, and using HPC resources from GENCI-IDRIS (grants 2012-042122 and at 2013-042122). This is IPGP contribution 3419.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



J.A. designed the project and carried out the numerical experiments. J.A. and C.C.F. designed the numerical experiments and processed the results. J.A, C.C.F. and A.F. discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Julien Aubert.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Energy spectra of the coupled Earth dynamo.

a, b, Earth-surface energy spectra for the magnetic field (a) and secular variation (b), as functions of spherical harmonic degree. The geomagnetic field model14 gufm-sat-Q3 in 2001 is given as a red line (corresponding to Fig. 2a, b), together with a snapshot of the coupled Earth dynamo model (solid black line, same time as Fig. 2c, d) and its time-averaged spectrum (dashed black line, averaging time is 67,000 years).

Extended Data Figure 2 Variations in the length of day arising from core–mantle angular momentum exchanges.

The optimal choice for the model gravitational coupling constant Γτ (Methods) is guided by inverting geomagnetic field model35 CM4 between 1960 and 2000, and model14 gufm-sat-Q3 between 2000 and 2010, for length-of-day variations (open circles), using an inverse geodynamo modelling framework (see figure 13 in ref. 6 and associated discussion for a full description of the method). The prior numerical dynamo models used in the framework (Extended Data Table 1) are G (green line) and GI (red line). A vanishing gravitational coupling results in vanishing length-of-day variations (blue line). Variations in Earth’s length of day of core origin (as computed in ref. 11) are represented in black.

Extended Data Figure 3 Effect of the inner-core boundary mass anomaly flux heterogeneity.

Time-averaged plots of azimuthal velocity in the equatorial plane (blue is westwards, grey arrows mark the general circulation) for models GI, GI1.2 and GI1.6 (respectively ac, Extended Data Table 1) where the amplitude Δf/f of the inner-core boundary heterogeneity is varied. The grey half-circles represent the orientation of the hemispherical buoyancy release heterogeneity at the inner boundary. The location of the Greenwich meridian (0°) is also marked.

Extended Data Figure 4 Origin of the geographical localization of secular variation.

Longitudinally (a) and latitudinally (b) averaged profiles of the time average secular variation energy contained in models G, GI, GM, the standard and the coupled Earth dynamo models (Extended Data Table 1). Secular variation is filtered at spherical harmonic degree and order 8, as in Fig. 1.

Extended Data Figure 5 Analysis of longitudinal magnetic drift.

Shown is magnetic power coherently moving in the longitudinal direction, as a function of latitude and azimuthal speed. a, Analysis of the historical field model gufm1 following ref. 3. b, c, Same analysis, applied respectively to 3,000-year sequences of the coupled Earth and standard dynamo models, filtered at spherical harmonic degree and order 13. Power colour scale differs in a, b and c owing to the different timespans available in the dynamo models and the historical geomagnetic field model. The analysis is performed using the Radon transform technique (Supplementary Information).

Extended Data Table 1 Model parameter-space exploration.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text and Data and additional references. (PDF 186 kb)

Magnetic field dynamics in the coupled Earth (CE) dynamo model.

Radial magnetic field (Hammer projection) at the core-mantle boundary of the CE dynamo model (orange is outwards, units in milliteslas), filtered at spherical harmonic degree 13, from the 3000-year simulation sequence presented in Figure 3a. (MOV 7492 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Aubert, J., Finlay, C. & Fournier, A. Bottom-up control of geomagnetic secular variation by the Earth’s inner core. Nature 502, 219–223 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing