Inside the Earth - The Earth's Layers
The layers scientists recognize are pictured below.
A cross section of Earth showing the following layers: (1) crust (2) mantle (3a) outer core (3b) inner core
(4) lithosphere (5) asthenosphere (6) outer core (7) inner core.
Core, mantle, and crust are divisions based on composition:
- The crust is less than 1% of Earth by mass. The oceanic crust is mafic (minerals with high levels of ferromagnesian), while continental crust is often more felsic (minerals that are primarily made of feldspars and quartz) rock.
- The mantle is hot, ultramafic rock. It represents about 68% of Earth's mass.
- The core is mostly iron metal. The core makes up about 31% of the Earth.
Lithosphere and asthenosphere are divisions based on mechanical properties:
- The lithosphere is composed of both the crust and the portion of the upper mantle that behaves as a brittle, rigid solid.
- The asthenosphere is partially molten upper mantle material that behaves plastically and can flow.
- The mesosphere refers to the mantle in the region under the lithosphere, and the asthenosphere, but above the outer core. The difference between mesosphere and asthenosphere is likely due to density and rigidity differences, that is, physical factors, and not to any difference in chemical composition.
This animation shows the layers by composition and by mechanical properties.
Crust and Lithosphere
Earth’s outer surface is its crust; a cold, thin, brittle outer shell made of rock. The crust is very thin, relative to the radius of the planet. There are two very different types of crust, each with its own distinctive physical and chemical properties, which are summarized in Table below.
||5-12 km (3-8 mi)||3.0 g/cm3||Mafic||Basalt and gabbro|
|Continental||Avg. 35 km (22 mi)||2.7 g/cm3||Felsic||All types|
Oceanic crust is composed of mafic magma that erupts on the seafloor to create basalt lava flows or cools deeper down to create the intrusive igneous rock gabbro (Figure below).
Gabbro from ocean crust
The gabbro is deformed because of intense faulting at the eruption site. Sediments, primarily muds and the shells of tiny sea creatures, coat the seafloor. Sediment is thickest near the shore where it comes off the continents in rivers and on wind currents.
Continental crust is made up of many different types of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks. The average composition is granite, which is much less dense than the mafic rocks of the oceanic crust (Figure below). Because it is thick and has relatively low density, continental crust rises higher on the mantle than oceanic crust, which sinks into the mantle to form basins. When filled with water, these basins form the planet’s oceans.
This granite from Missouri is more than 1 billion years old.
The lithosphere is the outermost mechanical layer, which behaves as a brittle, rigid solid. The lithosphere is about 100 kilometers thick. Look at the figure above. Can you find where the crust and the lithosphere are located? How are they different from each other? The definition of the lithosphere is based on how earth materials behave, so it includes the crust and the uppermost mantle, which are both brittle. Since it is rigid and brittle, when stresses act on the lithosphere, it breaks. This is what we experience as an earthquake.
The two most important things about the mantle are: (1) it is made of solid rock, and (2) it is hot. Scientists know that the mantle is made of rock based on evidence from seismic waves, heat flow, and meteorites. The properties fit the ultramafic rock peridotite, which is made of the iron- and magnesium-rich silicate minerals (Figure below). Peridotite is rarely found at Earth's surface.
Peridotite is formed of crystals of olivine (green) and pyroxene (black).
Scientists know that the mantle is extremely hot because of the heat flowing outward from it and because of its physical properties.
Heat flows in two different ways within the Earth:
- Conduction: Heat is transferred through rapid collisions of atoms, which can only happen if the material is solid. Heat flows from warmer to cooler places until all are the same temperature. The mantle is hot mostly because of heat conducted from the core.
- Convection: If a material is able to move, even if it moves very slowly, convection currents can form.
Convection in the mantle is the same as convection in a pot of water on a stove. Convection currents within Earth's mantle form as material near the core heats up. As the core heats the bottom layer of mantle material, particles move more rapidly, decreasing its density and causing it to rise. The rising material begins the convection current. When the warm material reaches the surface, it spreads horizontally. The material cools because it is no longer near the core. It eventually becomes cool and dense enough to sink back down into the mantle. At the bottom of the mantle, the material travels horizontally and is heated by the core. It reaches the location where warm mantle material rises, and the mantle convection cell is complete (Figure below).
At the planet’s center lies a dense metallic core. Scientists know that the core is metal because:
- The density of Earth's surface layers is much less than the overall density of the planet, as calculated from the planet’s rotation. If the surface layers are less dense than average, then the interior must be denser than average. Calculations indicate that the core is about 85% iron metal with nickel metal making up much of the remaining 15%.
- Metallic meteorites are thought to be representative of the core. The 85% iron/15% nickel calculation above is also seen in metallic meteorites (Figure below).
An iron meteorite is the closest thing to the Earth’s core that we can hold in our hands.
If Earth's core were not metal, the planet would not have a magnetic field. Metals such as iron are magnetic, but rock, which makes up the mantle and crust, is not. Scientists know that the outer core is liquid and the inner core is solid because:
- S-waves stop at the inner core.
- The strong magnetic field is caused by convection in the liquid outer core. Convection currents in the outer core are due to heat from the even hotter inner core.
The heat that keeps the outer core from solidifying is produced by the breakdown of radioactive elements in the inner core.
Earth is made of three layers: the crust, mantle, and core. The brittle crust and uppermost mantle are together called the lithosphere. Beneath the lithosphere, the mantle is solid rock that can flow, or behave plastically. The hot core warms the base of the mantle, which causes mantle convection.
- What is the difference between crust and lithosphere? Include in your answer both where they are located and what their properties are.
- How do the differences between oceanic and continental crust lead to the presence of ocean basins and continents?
- What types of rock make up the oceanic crust and how do they form?
- What types of rock make up the continental crust?
- How do scientists know about the liquid outer core? How do scientists know that the outer core is liquid?
- Describe the properties of each of these parts of the Earth’s interior: lithosphere, mantle, and core. What are they made of? How hot are they? What are their physical properties?
- When you put your hand above a pan filled with boiling water, does your hand warm up because of convection or conduction? If you touch the pan, does your hand warm up because of convection or conduction? Based on your answers, which type of heat transfer moves heat more easily and efficiently?
Points to Consider
- Oceanic crust is thinner and denser than continental crust. All crust sits atop the mantle. What might Earth be like if this were not true?
- If sediments fall onto the seafloor over time, what can sediment thickness tell scientists about the age of the seafloor in different regions?
- How might convection cells in the mantle affect the movement of solid crust on the planet’s surface?
Answers - Highlight the box below to see the answers.
Source: Open Education Group Textbooks - Earth Science