The rotation of the Earth's inner core is slowing down - and the length of your day could be about to change

Composite image of the earth's inner core and a man looking at his watch

Earth’s inner core is slowing down in relation to the planet’s surface - and it may alter the length of your day

Getty Images
Adam Chapman

By Adam Chapman


Published: 14/06/2024

- 10:01

Updated: 14/06/2024

- 10:02
  • Earth’s inner core is slowing down in relation to the planet’s surface
  • Scientists speculate that this backtracking may alter the length of the day

Scientists have proven that the Earth’s inner core is slowing down in relation to the planet’s surface - and it may alter the length of the day.

This backtracking - or slowing down - settles a debate that's been raging in the scientific community for decades.


Previous research indicated that the inner core rotates faster than the planet’s surface.

The new USC study provides unambiguous evidence that the inner core began to decrease its speed around 2010, moving slower than the Earth’s surface.

“When I first saw the seismograms that hinted at this change, I was stumped,” said John Vidale, Dean’s Professor of Earth Sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“But when we found two dozen more observations signaling the same pattern, the result was inescapable. The inner core had slowed down for the first time in many decades. Other scientists have recently argued for similar and different models, but our latest study provides the most convincing resolution.”

Illustration of the earth's inner core slowing down

The inner core began to decrease its speed around 2010, moving slower than the Earth’s surface.

USC Graphic/Edward Sotelo

What this means 

The implications of this change in the inner core’s movement for Earth’s surface can only be speculated.

Vidale said the backtracking of the inner core may alter the length of a day by fractions of a second: “It’s very hard to notice, on the order of a thousandth of a second, almost lost in the noise of the churning oceans and atmosphere.”

The USC scientists’ future research aspires to chart the trajectory of the inner core in even greater detail to reveal exactly why it is shifting.

“The dance of the inner core might be even more lively than we know so far,” Vidale said.

How does it work? 

The inner core is considered to be reversing and backtracking relative to the planet’s surface due to moving slightly slower instead of faster than the Earth’s mantle for the first time in approximately 40 years. Relative to its speed in previous decades, the inner core is slowing down.

The inner core is a solid iron-nickel sphere surrounded by the liquid iron-nickel outer core. Roughly the size of the moon, the inner core sits more than 3,000 miles under our feet and presents a challenge to researchers: it can’t be visited or viewed. Scientists must use the seismic waves of earthquakes to create renderings of the inner core’s movement.

Vidale and Wei Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences utilised waveforms and repeating earthquakes in contrast to other research. Repeating earthquakes are seismic events that occur at the same location to produce identical seismograms.

In this study, the researchers compiled and analysed seismic data recorded around the South Sandwich Islands from 121 repeating earthquakes that occurred between 1991 and 2023.

Earth's inner core rotating

The inner core’s slowing speed was caused by the churning of the liquid iron outer core that surrounds it

Getty Images

They have also utilised data from twin Soviet nuclear tests between 1971 and 1974, as well as repeated French and American nuclear tests from other studies of the inner core.

Vidale said the inner core’s slowing speed was caused by the churning of the liquid iron outer core that surrounds it, which generates Earth’s magnetic field, as well as gravitational tugs from the dense regions of the overlying rocky mantle.

You may like

{% if context.post.roar_specific_data and context.post.roar_specific_data.affiliate_post %} {% elif %} {% endfor %}