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Reading: The Interior of the Earth


Three centuries ago, the English scientist Isaac Newton calculated, from his studies of planets and the force of gravity, that the average density of the Earth is twice that of surface rocks and therefore that the Earth’s interior must be composed of much denser material. Our knowledge of what’s inside the Earth has improved immensely since Newton’s time, but his estimate of the density remains essentially unchanged. Our current information comes from studies of the paths and characteristics of earthquake waves travelling through the Earth, as well as from laboratory experiments on surface minerals and rocks at high pressure and temperature. Other important data on the Earth’s interior come from geological observation of surface rocks and studies of the Earth’s motions in the Solar System, its gravity and magnetic fields, and the flow of heat from inside the Earth.The planet Earth is made up of three main shells: the very thin, brittle crust, the mantle, and the core; the mantle and core are each divided into two parts. All parts are drawn to scale on the cover of this publication, and a table at the end lists the thicknesses of the parts. Although the core and mantle are about equal in thickness, the core actually forms only 15 percent of the Earth’s volume, whereas the mantle occupies 84 percent. The crust makes up the remaining 1 percent. Our knowledge of the layering and chemical composition of the Earth is steadily being improved by earth scientists doing laboratory experiments on rocks at high pressure and analyzing earthquake records on computers.


Because the crust is accessible to us, its geology has been extensively studied, and therefore much more information is known about its structure and composition than about the structure and composition of the mantle and core. Within the crust, intricate patterns are created when rocks are redistributed and deposited in layers through the geologic processes of eruption and intrusion of lava, erosion, and consolidation of rock particles, and solidification and recrystallization of porous rock.

Figure 1. The oceanic crust at the island of Hawaii is about 5 kilometers thick. The thickness of the continental crust under eastern California ranges from 25 kilometers under the Great Valley to 60 kilometers under the Sierra Nevada.

By the large-scale process of plate tectonics, about twelve plates, which contain combinations of continents and ocean basins, have moved around on the Earth’s surface through much of geologic time. The edges of the plates are marked by concentrations of earthquakes and volcanoes. Collisions of plates can produce mountains like the Himalayas, the tallest range in the world. The plates include the crust and part of the upper mantle, and they move over a hot, yielding upper mantle zone at very slow rates of a few centimeters per year, slower than the rate at which fingernails grow. The crust is much thinner under the oceans than under continents (see figure above).

The boundary between the crust and mantle is called the Mohorovicic discontinuity (or Moho); it is named in honor of the man who discovered it, the Croatian scientist Andrija Mohorovicic. No one has ever seen this boundary, but it can be detected by a sharp increase downward in the speed of earthquake waves there. The explanation for the increase at the Moho is presumed to be a change in rock types. Drill holes to penetrate the Moho have been proposed, and a Soviet hole on the Kola Peninsula has been drilled to a depth of 12 kilometers, but drilling expense increases enormously with depth, and Moho penetration is not likely very soon.


Our knowledge of the upper mantle, including the tectonic plates, is derived from analyses of earthquake waves (see figure for paths); heat flow, magnetic, and gravity studies; and laboratory experiments on rocks and minerals. Between 100 and 200 kilometers below the Earth’s surface, the temperature of the rock is near the melting point; molten rock erupted by some volcanoes originates in this region of the mantle. This zone of extremely yielding rock has a slightly lower velocity of earthquake waves and is presumed to be the layer on which the tectonic plates ride. Below this low-velocity zone is a transition zone in the upper mantle; it contains two discontinuities caused by changes from less dense to more dense minerals. The chemical composition and crystal forms of these minerals have been identified by laboratory experiments at high pressure and temperature. The lower mantle, below the transition zone, is made up of relatively simple iron and magnesium silicate minerals, which change gradually with depth to very dense forms. Going from mantle to core, there is a marked decrease (about 30 percent) in earthquake wave velocity and a marked increase (about 30 percent) in density.

Figure 2. Cross section of the whole Earth, showing the complexity of paths of earthquake waves. The paths curve because the different rock types found at different depths change the speed at which the waves travel. Solid lines marked P are compressional waves; dashed lines marked S are shear waves. S waves do not travel through the core but may be converted to compressional waves (marked K) on entering the core (PKP, SKS). Waves may be reflected at the surface (PP, PPP, SS).

The core was the first internal structural element to be identified. It was discovered in 1906 by R.D. Oldham, from his study of earthquake records, and it helped to explain Newton’s calculation of the Earth’s density. The outer core is presumed to be liquid because it does not transmit shear (S) waves and because the velocity of compressional (P) waves that pass through it is sharply reduced. The inner core is considered to be solid because of the behavior of P and S waves passing through it.

Data from earthquake waves, rotations and inertia of the whole Earth, magnetic-field dynamo theory, and laboratory experiments on melting and alloying of iron all contribute to the identification of the composition of the inner and outer core. The core is presumed to be composed principally of iron, with about 10 percent alloy of oxygen or sulfur or nickel, or perhaps some combination of these three elements.

This table of depths, densities, and composition is derived mostly from information in a textbook by Don L. Anderson. Scientists are continuing to refine the chemical and mineral composition of the Earth’s interior by laboratory experiments, by using pressures 2 million times the pressure of the atmosphere at the surface and temperatures as high as 20000C.

Table 1. Data on the Earth’s Interior
  Thickness (km) Density (g/cm) Types of Rock Found
Top Bottom
Crust 30 2.2 2.9 Silicic rocks. Andesite, basalt at base.
Upper mantle 720 3.4 4.4 Peridotite, eclogite, olivine, spinel, garnet, pyroxene. Perovskite, oxides
Lower mantle 2,171 4.4 5.6 Magnesium and silicon oxides.
Outer core 2,259 9.9 12.1 Iron + oxygen, sulfur, nickel alloy.
Inner Core 1,221 12.8 13.1 Iron + oxygen, sulfur, nickel alloy.
Total Thickness 6,401      


The Moon, our fellow-traveler in space, has a diameter half that of the Earth’s core, and it revolves around the Earth, as all the planets revolve around the Sun, under the force of gravity. Moonquakes of very low energy are caused by land tides produced by the pull of Earth’s gravity, and, from analysis of moonquake data, scientists believe the Moon has two layers: a crust, from the surface to 65 kilometers depth, and an inner, more dense mantle from the crust to the center at 3,700 kilometers. The crust is presumed to be com- posed primarily of rocks containing feldspar, calcium aluminum silicate, and lesser pyroxene, iron and magnesium silicate; the crust also contains basalt in the mares, which contains less iron and more titanium than earth basalt. The mantle is thought to be made up of calcic peridotite, containing both pyroxene and feldspar.


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