Earth’s core is the very hot, very dense center of our planet. The ball-shaped core lies beneath the cool, brittle crust and the mostly-solid mantle. The core is found about 2,900 kilometers (1,802 miles) below Earth’s surface, and has a radius of about 3,485 kilometers (2,165 miles).
Planet Earth is older than the core. When Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, it was a uniform ball of hot rock. Radioactive decay and leftover heat from planetary formation (the collision, accretion, and compression of space rocks) caused the ball to get even hotter. Eventually, after about 500 million years, our young planet’s temperature heated to the melting point of iron—about 1,538° Celsius (2,800° Fahrenheit). This pivotal moment in Earth’s history is called the iron catastrophe.
The iron catastrophe allowed greater, more rapid movement of Earth’s molten, rocky material. Relatively buoyant material, such as silicates, water, and even air, stayed close to the planet’s exterior. These materials became the early mantle and crust. Droplets of iron, nickel, and other heavy metals gravitated to the center of Earth, becoming the early core. This important process is called planetary differentiation.
Earth’s core is the furnace of the geothermal gradient. The geothermal gradient measures the increase of heat and pressure in Earth’s interior. The geothermal gradient is about 25° Celsius per kilometer of depth (1° Fahrenheit per 70 feet). The primary contributors to heat in the core are the decay of radioactive elements, leftover heat from planetary formation, and heat released as the liquid outer core solidifies near its boundary with the inner core.
Unlike the mineral-rich crust and mantle, the core is made almost entirely of metal—specifically, iron and nickel. The shorthand used for the core’s iron-nickel alloys is simply the elements’ chemical symbols—NiFe. Elements that dissolve in iron, called siderophiles, are also found in the core. Because these elements are found much more rarely on Earth’s crust, many siderophiles are classified as “precious metals.” Siderophile elements include gold, platinum, and cobalt.
Another key element in Earth’s core is sulfur—in fact 90% of the sulfur on Earth is found in the core. The confirmed discovery of such vast amounts of sulfur helped explain a geologic mystery: If the core was primarily NiFe, why wasn’t it heavier? Geoscientists speculated that lighter elements such as oxygen or silicon might have been present. The abundance of sulfur, another relatively light element, explained the conundrum.
The outer core, about 2,200 kilometers (1,367 miles) thick, is mostly composed of liquid iron and nickel. The NiFe alloy of the outer core is very hot, between 4,500° and 5,500° Celsius (8,132° and 9,932° Fahrenheit).
The inner core is a hot, dense ball of (mostly) iron. It has a radius of about 1,220 kilometers (758 miles). Temperature in the inner core is about 5,200° Celsius (9,392° Fahrenheit). The pressure is nearly 3.6 million atmosphere (atm).