Earth's crust

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Plates in the crust of Earth Plates tect2 en.svg
Plates in the crust of Earth

Earth's crust is a thin shell on the outside of Earth, accounting for less than 1% of Earth's volume. It is the top component of the lithosphere, a division of Earth's layers that includes the crust and the upper part of the mantle. [1] The lithosphere is broken into tectonic plates whose motion allows heat to escape from the interior of the Earth into space.


The crust lies on top of the mantle, a configuration that is stable because the upper mantle is made of peridotite and so is significantly more dense than the crust. The boundary between the crust and mantle is conventionally placed at the Mohorovičić discontinuity, a boundary defined by a contrast in seismic velocity.

Geologic provinces of the world (USGS)
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Large igneous province
Extended crust
Oceanic crust:
0-20 Ma
20-65 Ma
>65 Ma World geologic provinces.jpg
Geologic provinces of the world (USGS)

The temperature of the crust increases with depth, [2] reaching values typically in the range from about 100 °C (212 °F) to 600 °C (1,112 °F) at the boundary with the underlying mantle. The temperature increases by as much as 30 °C (54 °F) for every kilometer locally in the upper part of the crust [3]


Abundance (atom fraction) of the chemical elements in Earth's upper continental crust as a function of the atomic number. The rarest elements in the crust (shown in yellow) are not the heaviest, but are rather the siderophile (iron-loving) elements in the Goldschmidt classification of elements. These have been depleted by being relocated deeper into Earth's core. Their abundance in meteoroid materials is higher. Additionally, tellurium and selenium have been depleted from the crust due to formation of volatile hydrides. Elemental abundances.svg
Abundance (atom fraction) of the chemical elements in Earth's upper continental crust as a function of the atomic number. The rarest elements in the crust (shown in yellow) are not the heaviest, but are rather the siderophile (iron-loving) elements in the Goldschmidt classification of elements. These have been depleted by being relocated deeper into Earth's core. Their abundance in meteoroid materials is higher. Additionally, tellurium and selenium have been depleted from the crust due to formation of volatile hydrides.

The crust of Earth is of two distinct types:

  1. Oceanic: 5 km (3 mi) to 10 km (6 mi) thick [4] and composed primarily of denser, more mafic rocks, such as basalt, diabase, and gabbro.
  2. Continental: 30 km (20 mi) to 50 km (30 mi) thick and mostly composed of less dense, more felsic rocks, such as granite.

The average thickness of the crust is about 15 km (9 mi) to 20 km (12 mi).

Because both continental and oceanic crust are less dense than the mantle below, both types of crust "float" on the mantle. The surface of the continental crust is significantly higher than the surface of the oceanic crust, due to the greater buoyancy of the thicker, less dense continental crust (an example of isostasy). As a result, the continents form high ground surrounded by deep ocean basins. [5]

The continental crust has an average composition similar to that of andesite, [6] though the composition is not uniform, with the upper crust averaging a more felsic composition similar to that of dacite, while the lower crust averages a more mafic composition resembling basalt. [7] The most abundant minerals in Earth's continental crust are feldspars, which make up about 41% of the crust by weight, followed by quartz at 12%, and pyroxenes at 11%. [8]

Most Abundant Elements of Earth's CrustApproximate % by weightOxideApproximate % oxide by weight
Si27.7 SiO2 60.6
Al8.1 Al2O3 15.9
Fe5.0 Fe as FeO 6.7
Ca3.7 CaO 6.4
Na2.7 Na2O 3.1
K2.6 K2O 1.8
Mg1.5 MgO 4.7
Ti0.44 TiO2 0.7
P0.10 P2O5 0.1

All the other constituents except water occur only in very small quantities and total less than 1%. [9]

Continental crust is enriched in incompatible elements compared to the basaltic ocean crust and much enriched compared to the underlying mantle. The most incompatible elements are enriched by a factor of 50 to 100 in continental crust relative to primitive mantle rock, while oceanic crust is enriched with incompatible elements by a factor of about 10. [10]

Estimates of average density for the upper crust range between 2.69 and 2.74 g/cm3 and for lower crust between 3.0 and 3.25 g/cm3. [11]

In contrast to the continental crust, the oceanic crust is composed predominantly of pillow lava and sheeted dikes with the composition of mid-ocean ridge basalt, with a thin upper layer of sediments and a lower layer of gabbro. [12]

Formation and evolution

Earth formed approximately 4.6 billion years ago from a disk of dust and gas orbiting the newly formed Sun. It formed via accretion, where planetesimals and other smaller rocky bodies collided and stuck, gradually growing into a planet. This process generated an enormous amount of heat, which caused early Earth to melt completely. As planetary accretion slowed, Earth began to cool, forming its first crust, called a primary or primordial crust. [13] This crust was likely repeatedly destroyed by large impacts, then reformed from the magma ocean left by the impact. None of Earth's primary crust has survived to today; all was destroyed by erosion, impacts, and plate tectonics over the past several billion years. [14]

Since then, Earth has been forming secondary and tertiary crust, which correspond to oceanic and continental crust respectively. Secondary crust forms at mid-ocean spreading centers, where partial-melting of the underlying mantle yields basaltic magmas and new ocean crust forms. This "ridge push" is one of the driving forces of plate tectonics, and it is constantly creating new ocean crust. That means that old crust must be destroyed somewhere so, opposite a spreading center, there is usually a subduction zone: a trench where an ocean plate is sinking back into the mantle. This constant process of creating new ocean crust and destroying old ocean crust means that the oldest ocean crust on Earth today is only about 200 million years old. [15]

In contrast, the bulk of the continental crust is much older. The oldest continental crustal rocks on Earth have ages in the range from about 3.7 to 4.28 billion years [16] [17] and have been found in the Narryer Gneiss Terrane in Western Australia, in the Acasta Gneiss in the Northwest Territories on the Canadian Shield, and on other cratonic regions such as those on the Fennoscandian Shield. Some zircon with age as great as 4.3 billion years has been found in the Narryer Gneiss Terrane. Continental crust is tertiary crust, formed at subduction zones through recycling of subducted secondary (oceanic) crust. [15]

The average age of the current Earth's continental crust has been estimated to be about 2.0 billion years. [18] Most crustal rocks formed before 2.5 billion years ago are located in cratons. Such old continental crust and the underlying mantle asthenosphere are less dense than elsewhere in Earth and so are not readily destroyed by subduction. Formation of new continental crust is linked to periods of intense orogeny; these periods coincide with the formation of the supercontinents such as Rodinia, Pangaea and Gondwana. The crust forms in part by aggregation of island arcs including granite and metamorphic fold belts, and it is preserved in part by depletion of the underlying mantle to form buoyant lithospheric mantle.

See also

Related Research Articles

Magma Natural material found beneath the surface of Earth

Magma is the molten or semi-molten natural material from which all igneous rocks are formed. Magma is found beneath the surface of the Earth, and evidence of magmatism has also been discovered on other terrestrial planets and some natural satellites. Besides molten rock, magma may also contain suspended crystals and gas bubbles.

Basalt A magnesium- and iron-rich extrusive igneous rock

Basalt is a fine-grained extrusive igneous rock formed from the rapid cooling of low-viscosity lava rich in magnesium and iron exposed at or very near the surface of a rocky planet or a moon. More than 90% of all volcanic rock on Earth is basalt. Rapid-cooling, fine-grained basalt is chemically equivalent to slow-cooling, coarse-grained gabbro. The eruption of basalt lava is observed by geologists at about 20 volcanoes per year. Basalt is also an important rock type on other planetary bodies in the Solar System; for example, the lunar maria are plains of flood basaltic lava flows, and basalt is a common rock on the surface of Mars.

Crust (geology) The outermost solid shell of a rocky planet, dwarf planet, or natural satellite

In geology, the crust is the outermost solid shell of a rocky planet, dwarf planet, or natural satellite. It is usually distinguished from the underlying mantle by its chemical makeup; however, in the case of icy satellites, it may be distinguished based on its phase.

Lithosphere The rigid, outermost shell of a terrestrial-type planet or natural satellite that is defined by its rigid mechanical properties

A lithosphere is the rigid, outermost shell of a terrestrial-type planet or natural satellite. On Earth, it is composed of the crust and the portion of the upper mantle that behaves elastically on time scales of thousands of years or greater. The crust and upper mantle are distinguished on the basis of chemistry and mineralogy.

Subduction A geological process at convergent tectonic plate boundaries where one plate moves under the other

Subduction is a geological process in which the oceanic lithosphere is recycled into the Earth's mantle at convergent boundaries. Where the oceanic lithosphere of a tectonic plate converges with the less dense lithosphere of a second plate, the heavier plate dives beneath the second plate and sinks into the mantle. A region where this process occurs is known as a subduction zone, and its surface expression is known as an arc-trench complex. The process of subduction has created most of the Earth's continental crust. Rates of subduction are typically measured in centimeters per year, with the average rate of convergence being approximately two to eight centimeters per year along most plate boundaries.

Convergent boundary Region of active deformation between colliding tectonic plates

A convergent boundary is an area on Earth where two or more lithospheric plates collide. One plate eventually slides beneath the other, a process known as subduction. The subduction zone can be defined by a plane where many earthquakes occur, called the Wadati–Benioff zone. These collisions happen on scales of millions to tens of millions of years and can lead to volcanism, earthquakes, orogenesis, destruction of lithosphere, and deformation. Convergent boundaries occur between oceanic-oceanic lithosphere, oceanic-continental lithosphere, and continental-continental lithosphere. The geologic features related to convergent boundaries vary depending on crust types.

Andesite An intermediate volcanic rock

Andesite is an extrusive volcanic rock of intermediate composition. In a general sense, it is the intermediate type between basalt and rhyolite. It is fine-grained (aphanitic) to porphyritic in texture, and is composed predominantly of sodium-rich plagioclase plus pyroxene or hornblende.

Petrology The branch of geology that studies the origin, composition, distribution and structure of rocks

Petrology is the branch of geology that studies rocks and the conditions under which they form. Petrology has three subdivisions: igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary petrology. Igneous and metamorphic petrology are commonly taught together because they both contain heavy use of chemistry, chemical methods, and phase diagrams. Sedimentary petrology is, on the other hand, commonly taught together with stratigraphy because it deals with the processes that form sedimentary rock.

Mohorovičić discontinuity Boundary between the Earths crust and the mantle

The Mohorovičić discontinuity, moh-hoh-ROH-veech-itch,, usually referred to as the Moho discontinuity or the Moho, is the boundary between the Earth's crust and the mantle. It is defined by the distinct change in velocity of seismological waves as they pass through changing densities of rock.

Peridotite A coarse-grained ultramafic igneous rock

Peridotite is a dense, coarse-grained igneous rock consisting mostly of the silicate minerals olivine and pyroxene. Peridotite is ultramafic, as the rock contains less than 45% silica. It is high in magnesium (Mg2+), reflecting the high proportions of magnesium-rich olivine, with appreciable iron. Peridotite is derived from Earth's mantle, either as solid blocks and fragments, or as crystals accumulated from magmas that formed in the mantle. The compositions of peridotites from these layered igneous complexes vary widely, reflecting the relative proportions of pyroxenes, chromite, plagioclase, and amphibole.

Continental crust Layer of rock that forms the continents and continental shelves

Continental crust is the layer of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks that forms the geological continents and the areas of shallow seabed close to their shores, known as continental shelves. This layer is sometimes called sial because its bulk composition is richer in silicates and aluminium minerals and has a lower density compared to the oceanic crust, called sima which is richer in magnesium silicate minerals and is denser. Changes in seismic wave velocities have shown that at a certain depth, there is a reasonably sharp contrast between the more felsic upper continental crust and the lower continental crust, which is more mafic in character.

Oceanic crust The uppermost layer of the oceanic portion of a tectonic plate

The Oceanic crust is the uppermost layer of the oceanic portion of a tectonic plate. It is composed of the upper oceanic crust, with pillow lavas and a dike complex, and the lower oceanic crust, composed of troctolite, gabbro and ultramafic cumulates. The crust overlies the solidified and uppermost layer of the mantle. The crust and the solid mantle layer together constitute oceanic lithosphere.

Earths mantle A layer of silicate rock between Earths crust and its outer core

Earth's mantle is a layer of silicate rock between the crust and the outer core. It has a mass of 4.01 × 1024 kg and thus makes up 67% of the mass of Earth. It has a thickness of 2,900 kilometres (1,800 mi) making up about 84% of Earth's volume. It is predominantly solid but in geological time, it behaves as a viscous fluid, sometimes described as having the consistency of caramel. Partial melting of the mantle at mid-ocean ridges produces oceanic crust, and partial melting of the mantle at subduction zones produces continental crust.

Continental collision

Continental collision is a phenomenon of the plate tectonics of Earth that occurs at convergent boundaries. Continental collision is a variation on the fundamental process of subduction, whereby the subduction zone is destroyed, mountains produced, and two continents sutured together. Continental collision is only known to occur on Earth.

Compatibility (geochemistry)

Compatibility is a term used by geochemists to describe how elements partition themselves in the solid and melt within Earth's mantle. In geochemistry, compatibility is a measure of how readily a particular trace element substitutes for a major element within a mineral.

Fractional crystallization (geology) One of the main processes of magmatic differentiation

Fractional crystallization, or crystal fractionation, is one of the most important geochemical and physical processes operating within crust and mantle of a rocky planetary body, such as the Earth. It is important in the formation of igneous rocks because it is one of the main processes of magmatic differentiation. Fractional crystallization is also important in the formation of sedimentary evaporite rocks.

Igneous rock Rock formed through the cooling and solidification of magma or lava

Igneous rock, or magmatic rock, is one of the three main rock types, the others being sedimentary and metamorphic. Igneous rock is formed through the cooling and solidification of magma or lava.

Ocean island basalt

Ocean island basalt (OIB) is a volcanic rock, usually basaltic in composition, erupted in oceans away from tectonic plate boundaries. Although ocean island basaltic magma is mainly erupted as basalt lava, the basaltic magma is sometimes modified by igneous differentiation to produce a range of other volcanic rock types, for example, rhyolite in Iceland, and phonolite and trachyte at the intraplate volcano Fernando de Noronha. Unlike mid-ocean ridge basalts (MORBs), which erupt at spreading centers, and volcanic arc lavas, which erupt at subduction zones, ocean island basalts are the result of intraplate volcanism. However, some ocean island basalt locations coincide with plate boundaries like Iceland, which sits on top of a mid-ocean ridge, and Samoa, which is located near a subduction zone.

A continental arc is a type of volcanic arc occurring as an "arc-shape" topographic high region along a continental margin. The continental arc is formed at an active continental margin where two tectonic plates meet, and where one plate has continental crust and the other oceanic crust along the line of plate convergence, and a subduction zone develops. The magmatism and petrogenesis of continental crust are complicated: in essence, continental arcs reflect a mixture of oceanic crust materials, mantle wedge and continental crust materials.

Roberta Rudnick American geologist

Roberta L. Rudnick is an American earth scientist and professor of geology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010 and was awarded the Dana Medal by the Mineralogical Society of America. Rudnick is a world expert in the continental crust and lithosphere.


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