If you have used a compass, then you have used one of Earth’s key features to find your way. That feature is Earth’s magnetic field.
Earth is a giant magnet. This is because the core generates the magnetic field using the process called the geodynamo. The geodynamo process works like this: the outer core is full of conductive metals that is heated from below by the inner core. This drives the convection. The convection in the outer core is maintained by the heat in the inner core, and chemical differentiation. With help by the rotation of the Earth, this drives convection, and creates an instability that forms the magnetic field, and this process aligns the magnetic field to the rotational axis of the planet.
Magnetic fields are essential for life on Earth. That is because the magnetic field protects the planet from cosmic rays and charged particles from solar flares. When the charged particles hit the magnetic field, they become trapped and slide along the field lines moving towards the poles. The strongest areas of the magnetic field are near the poles, and if the particles are not strong enough, then they are repelled and they bounce back and forth along the field lines and that creates the Van Allen Radiation Belts. There, the magnetic field has trapped the charged particles to prevent them from reaching the atmosphere. If we didn’t have the magnetic field protecting the Earth, then the atmosphere would become stripped of its atoms and the radiation from the solar wind would irradiate all life on Earth.
However, the charged particles also interact with the magnetic fields. The motions of charged particles in circles form magnetic fields of their own. As a result, when both magnetic fields collide with each other, Earth’s magnetic field absorbs the momentum of the charged particles, and that pushes Earth’s magnetic field back. The Earth wants to make an even magnetic field, but the Sun is pushing the magnetic fields away from the sun. It’s not an even bombardment, due to the variations in solar output.
There are times when the solar wind is strong enough to overcome the magnetic field. The charged particle slides along the field into the poles, and when it is strong enough, it enters the atmosphere near the Earth’s poles, and ionizes the atmosphere. This leads to a beautiful sight called the Aurora Borealis/Australis.
Earth is not the only planet with a magnetic field though.
Stay tuned for my next post.
Coursera Lecture – Week 5.8