Lesson Objectives

  • Compare and describe each of these Earth layers: lithosphere, oceanic and continental crust.
  • Compare some of the ways geologists learn about Earth’s interior.
  • Describe how convection takes place in the mantle.
  • Compare the two parts of the core and describe why they are different from each other.


Before you can learn about plate tectonics, you need to know something about the layers that are found inside Earth. These layers are divided by composition into core, mantle and crust or by mechanical properties into lithosphere and asthenosphere. Scientists use information from earthquakes and computer modeling to learn about Earth’s interior.

Exploring Earth’s Interior

How do scientists know what is inside the Earth? We don't have direct evidence! Rocks yield clues, but only to the outer crust, except in rare cases when a mineral, such as a diamond, comes to the surface from deeper down in the crust or the mantle. To learn about Earth's interior, scientists use energy to 'see' the different layers of the Earth, just like doctors can use an MRI, CT scan, or x-ray to see inside our bodies.

Seismic Waves

One ingenious way scientists learn about Earth’s interior is by looking at how energy travels from the point of an earthquake. These are seismic waves (Figure below). Seismic waves travel outward in all directions from where the ground breaks at an earthquake. These waves are picked up by seismographs around the world. Two types of seismic waves are most useful for learning about Earth’s interior.
  • P-waves (primary waves) are fastest at about 6 to 7 kilometers (about 4 miles) per second and so they arrive first at the seismometer. P-waves move in a compression/expansion type motion, squeezing and unsqueezing earth materials as they travel. This produces a change in volume for the material. P-waves bend (refract) slightly when they travel from one layer into another. Seismic waves move faster through denser or more rigid material. As P-waves encounter the liquid outer core, which is less rigid than the mantle, they slow down. This makes the P-waves arrive later and further away than would be expected. The result is a P-wave shadow zone. No P-waves are picked up at seismographs 104o to 140o from the earthquakes focus.
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How P-waves travel through Earth
  • S-waves (secondary waves) are about half as fast as P-waves, traveling at about 3.5 km (2 miles) per second, and so arrive second at seismographs. S-waves move in an up and down motion, perpendicular to the direction of wave travel. This produces a change in shape for the earth materials they move through. Only solids resist a change in shape so S-waves are only able to propagate through solids. S-waves cannot travel through liquid.
By tracking seismic waves, scientists have learned what makes up the planet’s interior (Figure below).
  • P-waves slow down at the mantle core boundary, so we know the outer core is less rigid than the mantle.
  • S-waves disappear at the mantle core boundary, so the outer core is liquid.
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Letters describe the path of an individual P wave or S wave. Waves traveling through the core take on the letter K.
This animation shows a seismic wave shadow zone: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/animations/animation.php?flash_title=Shadow+Zone&flash_file=shadowzone&flash_width=220&flash_height=320.

Other Clues about Earth’s Interior

  1. Earth’s overall density is higher than the density of crustal rocks so the core must be made of something dense, like metal.
  2. Since Earth has a magnetic field, there must be metal within the planet. Iron and nickel are both magnetic.
  3. Meteorites are the remains of the material that formed the early solar system and are thought to be similar to material in Earth’s interior (Figure below).
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This meteorite contains the mafic minerals olivine and pyroxene. It also contains metal flakes, similar to the material that separated into Earth
The layers scientists recognize are pictured below (Figure below).
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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:
  1. The oceanic crust is mafic, while continental crust is often more felsic rock. The crust is less than 1% of Earth by mass.
  2. The mantle is hot, ultramafic rock. It represents about 68% of Earth's mass.
  3. The core is mostly iron metal. The core makes up about 31% of the Earth.
Lithosphere and asthenosphere are divisions based on mechanical properties:
  1. The lithosphere is composed of both the crust and the portion of the upper mantle that behaves as a brittle, rigid solid.
  2. The asthenosphere is partially molten upper mantle material that behaves plastically and can flow.
This animation shows the layers by composition and by mechanical properties: http://earthguide.ucsd.edu/eoc/teachers/t_tectonics/p_layers.html

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.
Rock types
5-12 km (3-8 mi)
3.0 g/cm3
Basalt and gabbro
Avg. 35 km (22 mi)
2.7 g/cm3
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.
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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.
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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 as well as the lithosphere is located? How are they different from each other?
Since the definition of the lithosphere is based on how earth materials behave, it includes both the crust and the uppermost mantle, which are brittle. When stresses act on the lithosphere, since it is rigid and brittle, it breaks, which is what we experience as an earthquake.


The two most important things about the mantle are: (1) It is made of solid rock; (2) It is hot. Scientists know that the mantle is made of rock from 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.
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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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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 in a pot of water on a stove (Figure below). 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, so it rises. 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).
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In a convection cell, warm material rises and cool material sinks. In mantle convection, the heat source is the core.
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Diagram of convection within Earth's mantle.


At the planet’s center lies a dense metallic core. Scientists know that the core is metal because:
  1. 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 the average, then the interior must be more dense than the average. Calculations indicate that the core is about 85% iron metal with nickel metal making up much of the rest.
  2. 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).
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An iron meteorite is the closest thing to Earth
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:
  1. S-waves stop at the inner core.
  2. 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.

Lesson Summary

  • 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.

Review Questions

  1. How do the differences between oceanic and continental crust lead to the presence of ocean basins and continents?
  2. What is the difference between crust and lithosphere? Include both where they are located and what their properties are.
  3. In what ways do scientists learn about what makes up the planet’s interior?
  4. What types of rock make up the oceanic crust?
  5. What types of rock make up the continental crust?
  6. List two reasons that scientists know that the outer core is liquid.
  7. 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?
  8. 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?


seismic waves Also called earthquake waves. Seismic waves give scientists information on Earth’s interior. S-waves Secondary waves; arrive second at a seismograph. refraction Bending. Many waves refract when they travel from one type of medium to another. reflection Bouncing back. A wave bounces off a reflective surface, just as a light wave bounces off a mirror. plate tectonics The theory that the Earth’s surface is divided into lithospheric plates that move on the planet’s surface. The driving force behind plate tectonics is mantle convection. P-waves Primary waves; arrive first at a seismograph. oceanic crust The crust that underlies the oceans; thinner and denser than continental crust. meteorite Fragments of planetary bodies such as moons, planets, asteroids, and comets that strike Earth. mantle The middle layer of the Earth; made of hot rock that circulates by convection. lithosphere The layer of solid, brittle rock that makes up the Earth’s surface; the crust and the uppermost mantle. crust The rocky outer layer of the Earth’s surface. The two types of crust are continental and oceanic. core The dense metallic center of the Earth. The outer core is liquid and the inner core is solid. convection cell A circular pattern of warm material rising and cool material sinking. convection The transport of heat by movement. continental crust The crust that makes up the continents; thicker and less dense than oceanic crust. conduction Heat flow by direct contact, moving from a warmer to a cooler region.

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?