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Possible links between long-term geomagnetic variations and whole-mantle convection processes

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 29 July 2012


The Earth's internal magnetic field varies on timescales of months to billions of years. The field is generated by convection in the liquid outer core, which in turn is influenced by the heat flowing from the core into the base of the overlying mantle. Much of the magnetic field's variation is thought to be stochastic, but over very long timescales, this variability may be related to changes in heat flow associated with mantle convection processes. Over the past 500 Myr, correlations between palaeomagnetic behaviour and surface processes were particularly striking during the middle to late Mesozoic era, beginning about 180 Myr ago. Simulations of the geodynamo suggest that transitions from periods of rapid polarity reversals to periods of prolonged stability — such as occurred between the Middle Jurassic and Middle Cretaceous periods — may have been triggered by a decrease in core–mantle boundary heat flow either globally or in equatorial regions. This decrease in heat flow could have been linked to reduced mantle-plume-head production at the core–mantle boundary, an episode of true polar wander, or a combination of the two.

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Figure 1: Records of geomagnetic polarity reversal frequency and dipole moment since the Cambrian period.
Figure 2: Representative cases of a mantle flow model showing the effects of subducted slabs on core–mantle boundary (CMB) heat flow.
Figure 3: Average reversal frequency and eruption ages20 of large igneous provinces (LIPs; offset by +50 Myr) that have not yet been subducted.
Figure 4: True polar wander (TPW) as produced by a mantle flow model (case 2) subject to two major perturbations in subduction flux which affected the fractional CMB heat flow in the equatorial region.
Figure 5: Analysis of possible effects of observed TPW on equatorial CMB heat flow (and hence reversal frequency).


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A.J.B. is funded by a NERC Advanced Fellowship (NE/F015208/1). N.S., A.J.B. and R.H. are funded by a NERC standard grant (NE/H021043/1). A.J.B. acknowledges valuable discussions with Neil Thomas and Mimi Hill. J.A. acknowledges support from program PNP/SEDI-TPS of French Instutut National des Sciences de l'Univers (INSU). T.H.T. acknowledges the European Research Council for financial support.

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A.J.B., B.S. and J.A. prepared the text with contributions from all other authors. B.S. supplied the mantle modelling results. New analyses were performed by A.J.B and B.S. All authors contributed to discussions about the ideas presented.

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Correspondence to A. J. Biggin.

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Biggin, A., Steinberger, B., Aubert, J. et al. Possible links between long-term geomagnetic variations and whole-mantle convection processes. Nature Geosci 5, 526–533 (2012).

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