The Composition and Structure of Earth

Core, mantle, and crust are divisions based on composition. The crust makes up less than 1 percent of Earth by mass, consisting of oceanic crust and continental crust is often more felsic rock. The mantle is hot and represents about 68 percent of Earth's mass. Finally, 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.

Layers of the earth, drawn to scale. The first layer is the atmosphere, the gases surrounding the planet. The hydrosphere is the water on the surface of the earth. Below this is the crust, which is divided into two types: the continental crust (granitic) and ocean crust (basaltic). The layers below this are as follows: the rigid mantle, the asthenosphere, the stiffer mantle, the outer core (liquid), and then the inner core (solid).

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. Oceanic crust is composed of magma that erupts on the seafloor to create basalt lava flows or cools deeper down to create the intrusive igneous rock gabbro. 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 igneous rocks of the oceanic crust. 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.The lithosphere is the outermost mechanical layer, which behaves as a brittle, rigid solid. The lithosphere is about 100 kilometers thick. 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.

Earth and atmosphere cutaway illustration. The layers of the atmosphere are from outside to inside: exosphere, thermosphere, mesosphere, stratosphere, and troposphere. The layers of the earth are the crust, the upper mantle, the mantle, the outer core, and the inner core.


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. Peridotite is rarely found at Earth's surface. 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 and convection. Conduction is defined as the heat transfer that occurs 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 is a process in which a material that can move and flow may develop convection currents.

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.


At the planet’s center lies a dense metallic core. Scientists know that the core is metal for a few reasons. 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 percent iron metal with nickel metal making up much of the remaining 15 percent. Also, metallic meteorites are thought to be representative of the core. 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.

Licenses and Attributions

More Study Resources for You

Show More