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Turbulent convective length scale in planetary cores

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Celine Guervilly



This is the authors' accepted manuscript of an article published in its final definitive form in 2019. For re-use rights please refer to the publishers terms and conditions.


Convection is a fundamental physical process in the fluid cores of planets. It is the primary transport mechanism for heat and chemical species and the primary energy source for planetary magnetic fields. Key properties of convection - such as the characteristic flow velocity and length scale - are poorly quantified in planetary cores owing to the strong dependence of these properties on planetary rotation, buoyancy driving and magnetic fields, all of which are difficult to model using realistic conditions. In the absence of strong magnetic fields, the convective flows of the core are expected to be in a regime of rapidly rotating turbulence, which remains largely unexplored. Here we use a combination of non-magnetic numerical models designed to explore this regime to show that the convective length scale becomes independent of the viscosity when realistic parameter values are approached and is entirely determined by the flow velocity and the planetary rotation. The velocity decreases very rapidly at smaller scales, so this turbulent convective length scale is a lower limit for the energy-carrying length scales in the flow. Using this approach, we can model realistically the dynamics of small non-magnetic cores such as the Moon. Although modelling the conditions of larger planetary cores remains out of reach, the fact that the turbulent convective length scale is independent of the viscosity allows a reliable extrapolation to these objects. For the Earth’s core conditions, we find that the turbulent convective length scale in the absence of magnetic fields would be about 30 kilometres, which is orders of magnitude larger than the ten-metre viscous length scale. The need to resolve the numerically inaccessible viscous scale could therefore be relaxed in future more realistic geodynamo simulations, at least in weakly magnetized regions.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Guervilly C, Cardin P, Schaeffer N

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Nature

Year: 2019

Volume: 570

Pages: 368-371

Print publication date: 20/06/2019

Online publication date: 19/06/2019

Acceptance date: 25/04/2019

Date deposited: 20/06/2019

ISSN (print): 0028-0836

ISSN (electronic): 1476-4687


DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1301-5


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