Lithosphere

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The tectonic plates of the lithosphere on Earth Plates tect2 en.svg
The tectonic plates of the lithosphere on Earth
Earth cutaway from center to surface, the lithosphere comprising the crust and lithospheric mantle (detail not to scale) Earth cutaway schematic-en.svg
Earth cutaway from center to surface, the lithosphere comprising the crust and lithospheric mantle (detail not to scale)

A lithosphere (Ancient Greek : λίθος [líthos] for "rocky", and σφαίρα [sphaíra] for "sphere") is the rigid, [1] 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.

Contents

Earth's lithosphere

Earth's lithosphere includes the crust and the uppermost mantle, which constitutes the hard and rigid outer layer of the Earth. The lithosphere is subdivided into tectonic plates. The lithosphere is underlain by the asthenosphere which is the weaker, hotter, and deeper part of the upper mantle. The Lithosphere-Asthenosphere boundary is defined by a difference in response to stress: the lithosphere remains rigid for very long periods of geologic time in which it deforms elastically and through brittle failure, while the asthenosphere deforms viscously and accommodates strain through plastic deformation.

The thickness of the lithosphere is thus considered to be the depth to the isotherm associated with the transition between brittle and viscous behavior. [2] The temperature at which olivine becomes ductile (~1000 °C) is often used to set this isotherm because olivine is generally the weakest mineral in the upper mantle. [3]

History of the concept

The concept of the lithosphere as Earth's strong outer layer was described by A.E.H. Love in his 1911 monograph "Some problems of Geodynamics" and further developed by Joseph Barrell, who wrote a series of papers about the concept and introduced the term "lithosphere". [4] [5] [6] [7] The concept was based on the presence of significant gravity anomalies over continental crust, from which he inferred that there must exist a strong, solid upper layer (which he called the lithosphere) above a weaker layer which could flow (which he called the asthenosphere). These ideas were expanded by Reginald Aldworth Daly in 1940 with his seminal work "Strength and Structure of the Earth." [8] They have been broadly accepted by geologists and geophysicists. These concepts of a strong lithosphere resting on a weak asthenosphere are essential to the theory of plate tectonics.

Types

Different types of lithosphere Subduction-en.svg
Different types of lithosphere

The lithosphere can be divided into oceanic and continental lithosphere. Oceanic lithosphere is associated with oceanic crust (having a mean density of about 2.9 grams per cubic centimeter) and exists in the ocean basins. Continental lithosphere is associated with continental crust (having a mean density of about 2.7 grams per cubic centimeter) and underlies the continents and continental shelfs. [9]

Oceanic lithosphere

Oceanic lithosphere consists mainly of mafic crust and ultramafic mantle (peridotite) and is denser than continental lithosphere. Young oceanic lithosphere, found at mid-ocean ridges, is no thicker than the crust, but oceanic lithosphere thickens as it ages and moves away from the mid-ocean ridge. The oldest oceanic lithosphere is typically about 140 km thick. [3] This thickening occurs by conductive cooling, which converts hot asthenosphere into lithospheric mantle and causes the oceanic lithosphere to become increasingly thick and dense with age. In fact, oceanic lithosphere is a thermal boundary layer for the convection [10] in the mantle. The thickness of the mantle part of the oceanic lithosphere can be approximated as a thermal boundary layer that thickens as the square root of time.

Here, is the thickness of the oceanic mantle lithosphere, is the thermal diffusivity (approximately 10−6 m2/s) for silicate rocks, and is the age of the given part of the lithosphere. The age is often equal to L/V, where L is the distance from the spreading centre of mid-oceanic ridge, and V is velocity of the lithospheric plate. [11]

Oceanic lithosphere is less dense than asthenosphere for a few tens of millions of years but after this becomes increasingly denser than asthenosphere. While chemically differentiated oceanic crust is lighter than asthenosphere, thermal contraction of the mantle lithosphere makes it more dense than the asthenosphere. The gravitational instability of mature oceanic lithosphere has the effect that at subduction zones, oceanic lithosphere invariably sinks underneath the overriding lithosphere, which can be oceanic or continental. New oceanic lithosphere is constantly being produced at mid-ocean ridges and is recycled back to the mantle at subduction zones. As a result, oceanic lithosphere is much younger than continental lithosphere: the oldest oceanic lithosphere is about 170 million years old, while parts of the continental lithosphere are billions of years old. [12] [13]

Subducted lithosphere

Geophysical studies in the early 21st century posit that large pieces of the lithosphere have been subducted into the mantle as deep as 2900 km to near the core-mantle boundary, [14] while others "float" in the upper mantle. [15] [16] Yet others stick down into the mantle as far as 400 km but remain "attached" to the continental plate above, [13] similar to the extent of the "tectosphere" proposed by Jordan in 1988. [17] Subducting lithosphere remains rigid (as demonstrated by deep earthquakes along Wadati–Benioff zone) to a depth of about 600 km (370 mi). [18]

Continental lithosphere

Continental lithosphere has a range in thickness from about 40 km to perhaps 280 km; [3] the upper ~30 to ~50 km of typical continental lithosphere is crust. The crust is distinguished from the upper mantle by the change in chemical composition that takes place at the Moho discontinuity. The oldest parts of continental lithosphere underlie cratons, and the mantle lithosphere there is thicker and less dense than typical; the relatively low density of such mantle "roots of cratons" helps to stabilize these regions. [12] [13]

Because of its relatively low density, continental lithosphere that arrives at a subduction zone cannot subduct much further than about 100 km (62 mi) before resurfacing. As a result, continental lithosphere is not recycled at subduction zones the way oceanic lithosphere is recycled. Instead, continental lithosphere is a nearly permanent feature of the Earth. [19] [20]

Mantle xenoliths

Geoscientists can directly study the nature of the subcontinental mantle by examining mantle xenoliths [21] brought up in kimberlite, lamproite, and other volcanic pipes. The histories of these xenoliths have been investigated by many methods, including analyses of abundances of isotopes of osmium and rhenium. Such studies have confirmed that mantle lithospheres below some cratons have persisted for periods in excess of 3 billion years, despite the mantle flow that accompanies plate tectonics. [22]

See also

Related Research Articles

Plate tectonics Movement of the Earths lithosphere

Plate tectonics is a scientific theory describing the large-scale motion of the plates making up the Earth's lithosphere since tectonic processes began on Earth between 3.3 and 3.5 billion years ago. The model builds on the concept of continental drift, an idea developed during the first decades of the 20th century. The geoscientific community accepted plate-tectonic theory after seafloor spreading was validated in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Seafloor spreading Process at mid-ocean ridges, where new oceanic crust is formed through volcanic activity and then gradually moves away from the ridge

Seafloor spreading is a process that occurs at mid-ocean ridges, where new oceanic crust is formed through volcanic activity and then gradually moves away from the ridge.

Asthenosphere The highly viscous, mechanically weak and ductile region of Earths mantle

The asthenosphere is the highly viscous, mechanically weak, and ductile region of the upper mantle of Earth. It lies below the lithosphere, at depths between approximately 80 and 200 km below the surface. The lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary is usually referred to as LAB. The asthenosphere is almost solid, although some of its regions could be molten. The lower boundary of the asthenosphere is not well defined. The thickness of the asthenosphere depends mainly on the temperature. However, the rheology of the asthenosphere also depends on the rate of deformation, which suggests that the asthenosphere could be also formed as a result of a high rate of deformation. In some regions, the asthenosphere could extend as deep as 700 km (430 mi). It is considered the source region of mid-ocean ridge basalt (MORB).

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.

Island arc Arc-shaped archipelago formed by intense seismic activity of long chains of active volcanoes

Island arcs are long chains of active volcanoes with intense seismic activity found along convergent tectonic plate boundaries. Most island arcs originate on oceanic crust and have resulted from the descent of the lithosphere into the mantle along the subduction zone. They are the principal way by which continental growth is achieved.

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.

Eclogite A dense metamorphic rock formed under high pressure

Eclogite is a metamorphic rock formed when mafic igneous rock is subjected to high pressure. Eclogite forms at pressures greater than those typical of the crust of the Earth. An unusually dense rock, eclogite can play an important role in driving convection within the solid Earth.

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.

Earths crust Thin shell on the outside 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. The lithosphere is broken into tectonic plates whose motion allows heat to escape from the interior of the Earth into space.

Wadati–Benioff zone Planar zone of seismicity corresponding with the down-going slab

A Wadati–Benioff zone is a planar zone of seismicity corresponding with the down-going slab in a subduction zone. Differential motion along the zone produces numerous earthquakes, the foci of which may be as deep as about 670 km (420 mi). The term was named for the two seismologists, Hugo Benioff of the California Institute of Technology and Kiyoo Wadati of the Japan Meteorological Agency, who independently discovered the zones.

Delamination (geology) Process occurring when lower continental crust and mantle lithosphere break away from the upper continental crust

In geodynamics, delamination refers to the loss and sinking (foundering) of the portion of the lowermost lithosphere from the tectonic plate to which it was attached.

Tectonic subsidence is the sinking of the Earth's crust on a large scale, relative to crustal-scale features or the geoid. The movement of crustal plates and accommodation spaces created by faulting create subsidence on a large scale in a variety of environments, including passive margins, aulacogens, fore-arc basins, foreland basins, intercontinental basins and pull-apart basins. Three mechanisms are common in the tectonic environments in which subsidence occurs: extension, cooling and loading.

Archean subduction is a contentious topic involving the possible existence and nature of subduction in the Archean, a geologic eon extending from 4.0-2.5 billion years ago. Until recently there was little evidence unequivocally supporting one side over the other, and in the past many scientists either believed in shallow subduction or its complete non-existence. However, the past two decades have witnessed the potential beginning of a change in geologic understanding as new evidence is increasingly indicative of episodic, non-shallow subduction.

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.

Lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary A level representing a mechanical difference between layers in Earth’s inner structure

The lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary represents a mechanical difference between layers in Earth's inner structure. Earth's inner structure can be described both chemically and mechanically. The lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary lies between Earth's cooler, rigid lithosphere and the warmer, ductile asthenosphere. The actual depth of the boundary is still a topic of debate and study, although it is known to vary according to the environment.

Subcontinental lithospheric mantle

The subcontinental lithospheric mantle (SCLM) is the uppermost solid part of Earth's mantle associated with the continental lithosphere.

Ridge push or sliding plate force is a proposed driving force for plate motion in plate tectonics that occurs at mid-ocean ridges as the result of the rigid lithosphere sliding down the hot, raised asthenosphere below mid-ocean ridges. Although it is called ridge push, the term is somewhat misleading; it is actually a body force that acts throughout an ocean plate, not just at the ridge, as a result of gravitational pull. The name comes from earlier models of plate tectonics in which ridge push was primarily ascribed to upwelling magma at mid-ocean ridges pushing or wedging the plates apart.

Plate theory (volcanism)

The plate theory is a model of volcanism that attributes all volcanic activity on Earth, even that which appears superficially to be anomalous, to the operation of plate tectonics. According to the plate theory, the principal cause of volcanism is extension of the lithosphere. Extension of the lithosphere is a function of the lithospheric stress field. The global distribution of volcanic activity at a given time reflects the contemporaneous lithospheric stress field, and changes in the spatial and temporal distribution of volcanoes reflect changes in the stress field. The main factors governing the evolution of the stress field are:

  1. Changes in the configuration of plate boundaries.
  2. Vertical motions.
  3. Thermal contraction.

Intraplate volcanism is volcanism that takes place away from the margins of tectonic plates. Most volcanic activity takes place on plate margins, and there is broad consensus among geologists that this activity is explained well by the theory of plate tectonics. However, the origins of volcanic activity within plates remains controversial.

References

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Further reading