Earth may have formed more than 4.5 billion years ago, but it's still cooling. A new study reveals that only about half of our planet's internal heat stems from natural radioactivity. The rest is primordial heat left over from when Earth first coalesced from a hot ball of gas, dust, and other material.
The new finding comes from experiments carried out deep inside a Japanese mountain. Itaru Shimizu, a particle physicist at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, and his colleagues used geoneutrinos—particles produced in a variety of ways, particularly during certain types of radioactive decay—to more directly estimate the amount of radiogenic heat produced inside Earth. That's the heat that comes from the decay of radioactive elements, such as uranium and thorium, rather than the leftover heat from Earth's formation. Between March 2002 and November 2009, sensors deep inside Mount Ikenoyama, near the town of Kamioka, Japan, detected 841 neutrinos. About 485 of those neutrinos were produced by nuclear power plants and other reactors and by nuclear waste, the team estimates. Another 245 were probably generated by sources such as cosmic rays striking gas molecules in the atmosphere. So only 111 of the neutrinos were associated with natural radioactivity within Earth, the researchers report online today in Nature Geoscience. Using a different analytical technique, they trimmed that tally to 106.
Despite the small number, the team estimates that about 4.3 million of the particles generated by the radioactive decay of uranium-238 and thorium-232 pass through each square centimeter of Earth's surface each second. The heat continuously generated by all that radioactivity is about 20 terawatts, Shimizu says. Previous studies suggest that the radioactive decay of potassium-40, which can't be measured by the Japanese sensors, provides another 4 terawatts. Altogether, the team estimates, this radiogenic heat accounts for about 54% of the heat flowing up through Earth's surface.
Previous estimates of radiogenic heat are roughly the same as the new figure. But they were based on inferences of Earth's chemical composition derived from analyses of meteorites, which presumably represent the overall proportions of elements in the cloud of dust and gas from which the solar system coalesced. So the team's new estimate of Earth's radiogenic heat is a significant result, says David Stevenson, a planetary physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "It's nice to see this [estimate] emerging from an actual measurement."
Because radioactive decay proceeds at a known pace, the findings reveal how much heat Earth is losing now and the rate at which it lost heat in the past, Stevenson says. In particular, the data may provide insights into how the speeds at which Earth's tectonic plates have moved—movements powered by the planet's heat—may have changed through time, he notes. "Plate tectonics is how Earth controls its heat output," he adds. And, on average, that heat output also influences geophysical processes such as the overall rate of volcanic activity.
Earth's internal radioactivity and its primordial heat will both diminish in future years, Stevenson says. The planet is now cooling about 100°C every 1 billion years, so eventually, maybe several billions of years from now, the waning rays of a dying sun will shine down on a tectonically dead planet whose continents are frozen in place.