An entirely new type of magnetic wave sweeping through the Earth’s outer core has been discovered

Using information from the European Space Agency’s Swarm satellite mission, scientists have discovered an entirely new type of magnetic wave that sweeps across the outer portion of the Earth’s outer core every seven years. This remarkable discovery opens a new window into a world we can never see. This mysterious wave oscillates every seven years and travels west at speeds of up to 1,500 kilometers per year. Photo credit: ESA/Planetary Visions

While volcanic eruptions and earthquakes immediately remind us that the earth’s interior is not peaceful, other elusive dynamic processes are also taking place deep within our feet. Using information from the European Space Agency’s Swarm satellite mission, scientists have discovered an entirely new type of magnetic wave that sweeps across the outer portion of the Earth’s outer core every seven years. This remarkable discovery, presented today at the European Space Agency’s Living Planet Earth Symposium, opens a new window on a world we can never see.

The Earth’s magnetic field It’s like a giant bubble that protects us from the onslaught of cosmic rays and charged particles carried by strong winds that escape the Sun’s gravity and rush through the solar system. Without our magnetic field, life as we know it could not exist.

swarm constellation

Constellation Swarm. Photo credit: ESA/ATG Medialab

Understanding exactly how and where our magnetic field is formed, why it fluctuates constantly, how it interacts with the solar wind and why it is currently weakening is not only of academic interest but also of societal benefit. For example, solar storms can destroy communications networks and navigation systems and satellites. Although there is nothing we can do about changes in the magnetic field, understanding this invisible force will help us prepare.

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Most of the field is generated by an ocean of superheated, swirling liquid iron that forms the Earth’s outer core 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) below our feet. Like a rotating conductor in a bicycle dynamo, it creates electrical currents and a constantly changing electromagnetic field.

The European Space Agency’s Swarm mission, consisting of three identical satellites, will measure these magnetic signals originating from the Earth’s core, as well as other signals originating from the crust, oceans, ionosphere and magnetosphere.

Since the launch of three Swarm satellites in 2013, scientists have analyzed their data to gain new insights into many of Earth’s natural processes, including indoor climate physics and dynamics Earth’s stormy heart.


Using information from the European Space Agency’s Swarm satellite mission, scientists have discovered an entirely new type of magnetic wave that sweeps across the outer portion of the Earth’s outer core every seven years. This remarkable discovery opens a new window into a world we can never see. This mysterious wave oscillates every seven years and travels west at speeds of up to 1,500 kilometers per year. Photo credit: ESA/Planetary Visions

Measure our magnetic field from space It’s the only way to probe the depths of the Earth’s core. Seismology and mineral physics shed light on the core’s physical properties, but do not shed light on the dynamo-generating motion of the liquid outer core.

But now, using data from the Swarm mission, scientists have uncovered a hidden secret.

An article published in the magazine Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes how a team of scientists discovered a new type of magnetic wave sweeping across the “surface” of the Earth’s outer core – where the core meets the mantle. This mysterious wave oscillates every seven years and travels west at speeds of up to 1,500 kilometers per year.

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“Geophysics has long theorized the existence of such waves, but they have been thought to occur over much longer periods of time than our research has shown,” said Nicholas Gillet of Grenoble Alps University and lead author of the paper.

Magnetic field measurements from ground-based instruments suggested there was some sort of undulation, but we needed the global coverage that measurements from space provide to show what’s really going on.

“We combined satellite measurements from Swarm, as well as from the earlier German Champ mission and Denmark’s Ørsted mission, with a computer model of the geodynamo to explain what caused the ground-based data – and that led to our discovery.”

Because of the Earth’s rotation, these waves line up in columns along the axis of rotation. The motion and magnetic field changes associated with these waves are strongest near the equatorial region of the core.

However, while research shows Coriolis magnetic waves in the vicinity of a seven-year period, the question remains as to the existence of such waves, which would oscillate at different times.

dr Gillett added: “Magnetic waves are likely caused by perturbations deep in the Earth’s liquid core, possibly related to upwelling plumes. Each wave is defined by its duration and typical length scale, and the period depends on the properties of the forces acting Magnetic Coriolis waves, the period denotes the strength of the magnetic field inside the heart.

“Our research suggests that there may be other waves like this, possibly of longer duration – but their discovery depends on further research.”

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Elias Daras, scientist for ESA’s Swarm mission, remarked: “This current research will certainly improve the scientific model of the magnetic field in the Earth’s outer core The thermal history of the Earth.”

Reference: “Satellite Magnetic Data Reveal Interannual Waves in the Earth’s Core” by Nicholas Gillett, Felix Gerek, Dominic Gault, Tobias Schweiger, Julian Ober and Matthew Estas, 21 March 2022 Available here Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2115258119

With support from the European Space Agency’s Science for Society programme, this research was presented at the European Space Agency’s Living Planet Symposium, taking place this week in Bonn, Germany. Participants will learn about the latest scientific discoveries on our planet and how observing the Earth from space supports environmental research and action to combat the climate crisis. You’ll also hear about new space technologies and new opportunities emerging in the rapidly changing Earth observation sector. Selected sessions will be broadcast, see ESA Web TV Channels.

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