The Structure of the Earth

The thin, outermost layer of the earth is called the crust. It makes up only one percent of the earth mass. The continental crust is thicker than the oceanic crust.


What comes to mind when you think of the word crust? Perhaps it is the time old saying,” Eat your crust!” The earth’s crust is a little different then the crust on a piece of bread. It is not soft and chewy, but it hard and composed of different minerals. The thin, outermost layer of the earth is called the crust. It makes up only one percent of the earth mass. The continental crust is thicker than the oceanic crust. It can range from 25 km thick at the edges to 70 km thick near the center. The oceanic crust on the other hand is only about 7 km thick and considerably denser. The crust and the uppermost part of the mantle make up the lithosphere, a solid region that is broken into plates. It is about 65 to 100 km thick.

Crust is being created at the mid ocean ridges and being eaten at the subduction zones. The movement processes are driven by the convection currents created by the heat produced by natural radioactive processes deep within the Earth.

The majority of the Earth’s crust was made through volcanic activity. The oceanic ridge system, a 40,000 kilometre network of volcanoes, generates new oceanic crust at the rate of 17 km3 per year, covering the ocean floor with an igneous rock called basalt. Hawaii and Iceland are two examples of the accumulation of basalt islands.

This is the outer part of the Earth composed essentially of crystalline rocks. These are low-density buoyant minerals dominated mostly by quartz (SiO2) and feldspars (metal-poor silicates). The crust is the surface of the Earth. Because cold rocks deform slowly, we refer to this rigid outer shell as the lithosphere (the rocky or strong layer).


The mantle is the layer below the crust. It makes up almost two thirds of the earth’s mass and is about 2900 km thick. The mantel is divided into two regions, the upper and lower sections. Directly below the upper section is the asthenosphere. Heat and pressure cause a small amount of melting to occur in the asthenosphere. While still solid, the asthenosphere is able to flow. The ability of a solid to flow is called plasticity. See “What’s the matter?” for an activity to demonstrate plasticity. Since the asthenosphere is more liquid than the rest of the mantle, the broken lithosphere plates are able to “float” on it.

When the material in the asthenosphere is heated, it becomes less dense and rises. While the cooler material is more dense tends to sink. Circulating currents carry the warmer material up and the cooler material down. These circular currents in the asthenosphere are called convection currents. The circulating convection currents cause the plates to move.

Lower mantle

The lower mantle is probably composed mainly of silicon, magnesium, and oxygen. It probably also contains some iron, calcium, and aluminium. Scientists make these deductions by assuming the Earth has a similar abundance and proportion of cosmic elements as found in the Sun and primitive meteorites.

D” layer

This layer is 200 to 300 kilometres thick. Although it is often identified as part of the lower mantle, seismic evidence suggests the D” layer might differ chemically from the lower mantle lying above it. Scientists think that the material either dissolved in the core, or was able to sink through the mantle but not into the core because of its density.

Upper mantle

Solid fragments of the upper mantle have been found in eroded mountain belts and volcanic eruptions. Olivine (Mg,Fe)2SiO4 and pyroxene (Mg,Fe)SiO3 have been found. These and other minerals are crystalline at high temperatures. Part of the upper mantle called the asthenosphere might be partially molten.


Below the mantle is the core, the center of the earth. It makes up nearly one third the mass of the earth. The core is also divided into two regions, the inner core and the outer core. From seismic or earthquake waves, scientists believe the outer core is a liquid and the inner core is a solid. The outer core is made of iron and is very dense. Scientists hypothesize that the circulation of the outer core causes the magnetic field around the earth. It is believed to be circulating in the counter-clockwise direction giving us the north pole in its present location. It switches about every million years. A record of this “switching” is recorded in the rocks both on land and in the ocean crust. See “Go west young man! But which way is north? “The inner core is made of solid iron and nickel. Many scientists believe it is kept in the solid state because of the extreme pressure from the other layers.

Inner core

The inner core is made of solid iron and nickel and is unattached to the mantle, suspended in the molten outer core. It is believed to have solidified as a result of pressure-freezing which occurs to most liquids under extreme pressure.

Outer core

The outer core is a hot, electrically conducting liquid (mainly Iron and Nickel). This conductive layer combines with Earth’s rotation to create a dynamo effect that maintains a system of electrical currents creating the Earth’s magnetic field. It is also responsible for the subtle jerking of Earth’s rotation. This layer is not as dense as pure molten iron, which indicates the presence of lighter elements. Scientists suspect that about 10% of the layer is composed of sulphur and oxygen because these elements are abundant in the cosmos and dissolve readily in molten iron.

Transition region

The transition region or mesosphere (for middle mantle), sometimes called the fertile layer and is the source of basaltic magmas.  It also contains calcium, aluminium, and garnet, which is a complex aluminium-bearing silicate mineral. This layer is dense when cold because of the garnet. It is buoyant when hot because these minerals melt easily to form basalt which can then rise through the upper layers as magma.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *