Magnetic Field Reversals, Polar Wander, and Core-Mantle Coupling

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  04 Sep 1987:
Vol. 237, Issue 4819, pp. 1140-1147
DOI: 10.1126/science.237.4819.1140


True polar wander, the shifting of the entire mantle relative to the earth's spin axis, has been reanalyzed. Over the last 200 million years, true polar wander has been fast (approximately 5 centimeters per year) most of the time, except for a remarkable standstill from 170 to 110 million years ago. This standstill correlates with a decrease in the reversal frequency of the geomagnetic field and episodes of continental breakup. Conversely, true polar wander is high when reversal frequency increases. It is proposed that intermittent convection modulates the thickness of a thermal boundary layer at the base of the mantle and consequently the core-to-mantle heat flux. Emission of hot thermals from the boundary layer leads to increases in mantle convection and true polar wander. In conjunction, cold thermals released from a boundary layer at the top of the liquid core eventually lead to reversals. Changes in the locations of subduction zones may also affect true polar wander. Exceptional volcanism and mass extinctions at the Cretaceous-Tertiary and Permo-Triassic boundaries may be related to thermals released after two unusually long periods with no magnetic reversals. These environmental catastrophes may therefore be a consequence of thermal and chemical couplings in the earth's multilayer heat engine rather than have an extraterrestrial cause.