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SCANNING EARTH WITH THE TIDES

ALEXANDER GRAYVER is a postdoctoral researcher in Geophysics. He studies


the structure of Earth’s magnetic field and of Earth itself using satellite data.

As soon as the launch vehicle


reaches outer space, it releases the three
satellites from its tip. At 450 and 540 kilometres
above Earth’s surface, the satellites enter into
orbit, unfold and begin their high-precision
survey of Earth’s magnetic field.

20 November 2013, 3:02 p.m.


at the Cosmodrome spaceport
in Plesetsk, Russia. off !
ESA’s three Swarm satellites ... 3 - 2 - 1 - lift-
take off into space.

> 10
Earth’s magnetic field resembles ZONES OF EARTH’S MAGNETIC FIELD ,00
a giant bar magnet with a North Pole and their strengths in nT = nanotesla* 0k
m I’m especially
and a South Pole. The poles are
connected through invisible magnetosphere 500 nT Swarm interested in a small part
magnetic field lines. satellites
of the magnetic field that
These protect us from
the deadly radiation originates from the
ionosphere 50 nT
that comes from oceans.
40
outer space. 0 km
1

crust 300 nT oce 90


ans km
<2 n
T
The magnetic field is 0 -1 0k
mantle 20 nT m
generated by electric currents 5- 3 2 km * Nikola Tesla (1856 -1943) was a
0k
within and outside planet Earth. m Serbian physicist. He is famous
liquid outer core for his ground-breaking work
Most of it originates from spiral-shaped
50,000 nT on alternating current.
iron-nickel flows in Earth’s liquid outer core. 2,9
0
5,15 0 km
0k
6,3 m
36 focusTerra – ETH Zurich 71 k
m
The gravitational As ocean water
pull of the Moon causes is electrically conductive
high and low tide in the oceans due to its salt content, its
every twelve hours and 25 minutes. movement generates a very
Within this time period, the water small magnetic field with
flows away from and then back a strength of less than
towards the coast. two nanotesla.

A Swarm satellite
in orbit over an
ocean
But we’ve found
Searching for the signal! It repeats the
the magnetic field of the same pattern as high tide and
oceans is like trying to detect low tide. Thus, it must be linked to
the buzzing of a wasp amid the tidal movement of
the noise from the the oceans.
!
Streetparade. Fantastic

Tides (water levels)


high tide
time
The oceans’ magnetic (hours)
signal is also affected by the 0 6 12 18 24
electrical conductivity of the rock
layers below. That allows us to use semi-diurnal tide/low tide
it as a key to the structure
Tidal magnetic field
below the oceans. strength (nT)
4
2
0
Similar to magnetic -2
time (hours)
resonance imaging MRI in -4
medicine, we look into Earth’s interior 0 6 12 18 24
with the help of an imaging method.
It involves using mathematical models
which we calculate on a At a depth of 72 kilometres we can see the boundary
supercomputer. magnetometer satellite between the cold, rigid lithosphere and the warmer,
viscous asthenosphere. The latter plays an important
role in plate tectonics because it forms the basis
on which the tectonic plates glide. Thus, using
electromagnetic data we have succeeded in
satellite orbit identifying the geological structure
scanner
beneath the oceans.
Earth’s magnetic field
magnet

tidal currents
ocean

lithosphere 72 km

asthenosphere

Image: ESA
Illustrations: Studio Nippoldt