Tomographic inversion for three-dimensional anisotropy of Earth's inner core

Xinlei Sun, Xiaodong Song

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Seismological studies generally suggest that the Earth's inner core is anisotropic and the anisotropic structure changes significantly both laterally and with depth. Previous body-wave studies of the inner core have relied on ray tracing or waveform modeling using one-dimensional (1D) models. Here we present non-linear tomographic inversions of the inner core anisotropy using three-dimensional (3D) ray tracing, spline parameterization, and a large collection of PKP differential travel times. We adapt a pseudo-bending ray tracing (PBR) method in spherical coordinates for seismic rays that traverse the inner core (PKP(DF) phase). The method iteratively perturbs each discontinuity point and continuous segment of the ray through 3D earth structure so that its travel time is minimum. The 3D anisotropic structure of the inner core is approximated to the first order as 3D heterogeneous (but isotropic) structure for a given ray. The data are corrected using a scaled mantle tomographic model. The inner core anisotropy model obtained has the following major features. (1) The model has strong hemispherical and depth variation. The isotropic velocity in the topmost inner core is greater in quasi-eastern hemisphere (QEH) (40-160°E) than in quasi-western hemisphere (QWH) (other longitudes). The anisotropy is weak in QEH to the depth of 600-700 km below the inner core boundary (ICB), while in QWH, the anisotropy increases at much shallower depth (about 100-200 km below the ICB) to about 3-4%, then remains at about 2-4% throughout the rest of the inner core. (2) The anisotropy form changes abruptly (over a depth range of about 150 km) at the radius of about 600 km, slightly less than half of the inner core radius, forming a distinct inner inner core (IIC). The velocity in the IIC has maximums at equatorial and polar directions and minimum at an angle of about 40° from the equatorial plane. The velocity in the outer inner core (OIC), however, changes little for ray directions 0-40° from the equatorial plane. (3) Despite large variation of the anisotropy, the isotropic velocity (Voigt average) throughout the inner core is nearly uniform. The results suggest that the OIC is likely composed of the same type of iron crystals with uniform chemistry, but the IIC may be composed of a different type of crystal alignment, a different iron phase, or a different chemical composition. Our tests on model parameterization, mantle correction, and linear and non-linear inversion suggest the main features of our model are very robust. However, fine scale structures are likely to differ, particularly in the major transition zones, e.g., in the topmost QWH (isotropy to anisotropy), between OIC and IIC (change in the form of anisotropy), and between QEH and QWH in OIC (difference in anisotropy strength). Searches for possible waveform complications from these boundaries need to be aware of the directional dependence and geographical variation to be successful.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)53-70
Number of pages18
JournalPhysics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Mar 2008


  • Inner inner core
  • Three-dimensional inner core anisotropy
  • Three-dimensional ray tracing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Geophysics
  • Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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