Microscopic minerals excavated from an ancient outcrop of Jack Hills, in Western Australia, have been the subject of intense geological study, as they seem to bear traces of the Earth’s magnetic field reaching as far back as 4.2 billion years ago. That’s almost 1 billion years earlier than when the magnetic field was previously thought to originate, and nearly back to the time when the planet itself was formed.
But as intriguing as this origin story may be, an MIT-led team has now found evidence to the contrary. In a paper published today in Science Advances, the team examined the same type of crystals, called zircons, excavated from the same outcrop, and have concluded that zircons they collected are unreliable as recorders of ancient magnetic fields.
In other words, the jury is still out on whether the Earth’s magnetic field existed earlier than 3.5 billion years ago.
“There is no robust evidence of a magnetic field prior to 3.5 billion years ago, and even if there was a field, it will be very difficult to find evidence for it in Jack Hills zircons,” says Caue Borlina, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). “It’s an important result in the sense that we know what not to look for anymore.”
Borlina is the paper’s first author, which also includes EAPS Professor Benjamin Weiss, Principal Research Scientist Eduardo Lima, and Research Scientist Jahandar Ramezan of MIT, along with others from Cambridge University, Harvard University, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Alabama, and Princeton University.
Source: “Origins of Earth’s magnetic field remain a mystery”, Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office