Inside the Earth

The size of the Earth -- about 12,750 kilometers (km) in diameter-was known by the ancient Greeks, but it was not until the turn of the 20th century that scientists determined that our planet is made up of three main layers: crust, mantle, and core. This layered structure can be compared to that of a boiled egg. The crust, the outermost layer, is rigid and very thin compared with the other two. Beneath the oceans, the crust varies little in thickness, generally extending only to about 5 km. The thickness of the crust beneath continents is much more variable but averages about 30 km; under large mountain ranges, such as the Alps or the Sierra Nevada, however, the base of the crust can be as deep as 100 km. Like the shell of an egg, the Earth's crust is brittle and can break.

Cutaway views showing the internal structure of the Earth. Below: This view drawn to scale demonstrates that the Earth's crust literally is only skin deep. Below right: A view not drawn to scale to show the Earth's three main layers (crust, mantle, and core) in more detail (see text).

Below the crust is the mantle, a dense, hot layer of semi-solid rock approximately 2,900 km thick. The mantle, which contains more iron, magnesium, and calcium than the crust, is hotter and denser because temperature and pressure inside the Earth increase with depth. As a comparison, the mantle might be thought of as the white of a boiled egg. At the center of the Earth lies the core, which is nearly twice as dense as the mantle because its composition is metallic (iron-nickel alloy) rather than stony. Unlike the yolk of an egg, however, the Earth's core is actually made up of two distinct parts: a 2,200 km-thick liquid outer core and a 1,250 km-thick solid inner core. As the Earth rotates, the liquid outer core spins, creating the Earth's magnetic field.

Not surprisingly, the Earth's internal structure influences plate tectonics. The upper part of the mantle is cooler and more rigid than the deep mantle; in many ways, it behaves like the overlying crust. Together they form a rigid layer of rock called the lithosphere (from lithos, Greek for stone). The lithosphere tends to be thinnest under the oceans and in volcanically active continental areas, such as the Western United States. Averaging at least 80 km in thickness over much of the Earth, the lithosphere has been broken up into the moving plates that contain the world's continents and oceans. Scientists believe that below the lithosphere is a relatively narrow, mobile zone in the mantle called the asthenosphere (from asthenes, Greek for weak). This zone is composed of hot, semi-solid material, which can soften and flow after being subjected to high temperature and pressure over geologic time. The rigid lithosphere is thought to "float" or move about on the slowly flowing asthenosphere.
"Historical perspective"

Last updated: 05.05.99