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The tectonic plates of the lithosphere on Earth

Earth cutaway from core to crust, the lithosphere comprising the crust and lithospheric mantle
(detail not to scale)
A lithosphere (Ancient Greek: [lithos] for "rocky", and [sphaira] for "sphere") is
the rigid,[1] outermost shell of a rocky planet, and can be identified on the basis of its mechanical
properties. On Earth, it comprises the crust and the portion of the upper mantle that behaves
elastically on time scales of thousands of years or greater. The outermost shell of a rocky planet,
the crust, is defined on the basis of its chemistry and mineralogy.


1 Earth's lithosphere
o 1.1 History
o 1.2 Types

1.2.1 Oceanic lithosphere

1.2.2 Subducted lithosphere
2 Mantle xenoliths
3 See also
4 References
5 Further reading
6 External links

Earth's lithosphere
Earth's lithosphere includes the crust and the uppermost mantle, which constitute the hard and
rigid outer layer of the Earth. The lithosphere is broken into tectonic plates. The uppermost part
of the lithosphere that chemically reacts to the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere through
the soil forming process is called the pedosphere. The lithosphere is underlain by the
asthenosphere, the weaker, hotter, and deeper part of the upper mantle. The boundary between
the lithosphere and the underlying asthenosphere 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 study of past and current formations of
landscapes is called geomorphology.

The concept of the lithosphere as Earths 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.[2][3][4][5] The concept was based on the presence
of significant gravity anomalies over continental crust, from which he inferred that there must
exist a strong upper layer (which he called the lithosphere) above a weaker layer which could
flow (which he called the asthenosphere). These ideas were expanded by Harvard geologist
Reginald Aldworth Daly in 1940 with his seminal work "Strength and Structure of the Earth"[6]
and have been broadly accepted by geologists and geophysicists. Although these ideas about
lithosphere and asthenosphere were developed long before plate tectonic theory was articulated
in the 1960s, the concepts that a strong lithosphere exists and that this rests on a weak
asthenosphere are essential to that theory.

There are two types of lithosphere:

Oceanic lithosphere, which is associated with oceanic crust and exists in the ocean basins
(mean density of about 2.9 grams per cubic centimeter)
Continental lithosphere, which is associated with continental crust (mean density of about
2.7 grams per cubic centimeter)

The thickness of the lithosphere is considered to be the depth to the isotherm associated with the
transition between brittle and viscous behavior.[7] The temperature at which olivine begins to

deform viscously (~1000 C) is often used to set this isotherm because olivine is generally the
weakest mineral in the upper mantle. Oceanic lithosphere is typically about 50140 km thick
(but beneath the mid-ocean ridges is no thicker than the crust), while continental lithosphere
has a range in thickness from about 40 km to perhaps 280 km;[8] the upper ~30 to ~50 km of
typical continental lithosphere is crust. The mantle part of the lithosphere consists largely of
peridotite. The crust is distinguished from the upper mantle by the change in chemical
composition that takes place at the Moho discontinuity.
Oceanic lithosphere
Oceanic lithosphere consists mainly of mafic crust and ultramafic mantle (peridotite) and is
denser than continental lithosphere, for which the mantle is associated with crust made of felsic
rocks. Oceanic lithosphere thickens as it ages and moves away from the mid-ocean ridge. 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. 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 106 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.
Oceanic lithosphere is less dense than asthenosphere for a few tens of millions of years but after
this becomes increasingly denser than asthenosphere. This is because the chemically
differentiated oceanic crust is lighter than asthenosphere, but 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. 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.[9][10]
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,[11] while others
"float" in the upper mantle,[12][13] while some stick down into the mantle as far as 400 km but
remain "attached" to the continental plate above,[10] similar to the extent of the "tectosphere"
proposed by Jordan in 1988.[14]

Mantle xenoliths
Geoscientists can directly study the nature of the subcontinental mantle by examining mantle
xenoliths[15] 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.[16]

See also

Kola Superdeep Borehole
Plate tectonics
Solid Earth

1. Skinner, B.J. & Porter, S.C.: Physical Geology, page 17, chapt. The Earth: Inside and
Out, 1987, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0-471-05668-5
2. Barrell, J (1914). "The strength of the Earth's crust". Journal of Geology 22 (4): 289314.
Bibcode:1914JG.....22..289B. doi:10.1086/622155. JSTOR 30056401.
3. Barrell, J (1914). "The strength of the Earth's crust". Journal of Geology 22 (5): 441468.
Bibcode:1914JG.....22..441B. doi:10.1086/622163. JSTOR 30067162.
4. Barrell, J (1914). "The strength of the Earth's crust". Journal of Geology 22 (7): 655683.
Bibcode:1914JG.....22..655B. doi:10.1086/622181. JSTOR 30060774.
5. Barrell, J (1914). "The strength of the Earth's crust". Journal of Geology 22 (6): 537555.
Bibcode:1914JG.....22..537B. doi:10.1086/622170. JSTOR 30067883.
6. Daly, R. (1940) Strength and structure of the Earth. New York: Prentice-Hall.
7. Parsons, B. and McKenzie, D. (1978). "Mantle Convection and the thermal structure of
the plates". Journal of Geophysical Research 83 (B9): 4485.
Bibcode:1978JGR....83.4485P. doi:10.1029/JB083iB09p04485.
8. Pasyanos M. E. (2008-05-15). "Lithospheric Thickness Modeled from Long Period
Surface Wave Dispersion". Retrieved 2014-04-25.
9. Jordan, Thomas H. (1978). "Composition and development of the continental
tectosphere". Nature 274 (5671): 544. Bibcode:1978Natur.274..544J.
10. O'Reilly, Suzanne Y.; Zhang, Ming; Griffin, William L.; Begg, Graham; Hronsky, Jon
(2009). "Ultradeep continental roots and their oceanic remnants: A solution to the
geochemical "mantle reservoir" problem?". Lithos 112: 1043.
Bibcode:2009Litho.112.1043O. doi:10.1016/j.lithos.2009.04.028.
11. Burke, Kevin; Torsvik, Trond H. (2004). "Derivation of Large Igneous Provinces of the
past 200 million years from long-term heterogeneities in the deep mantle". Earth and

Planetary Science Letters 227 (34): 531. Bibcode:2004E&PSL.227..531B.

12. Replumaz, Anne; Krason, Hrafnkell; Van Der Hilst, Rob D; Besse, Jean; Tapponnier,
Paul (2004). "4-D evolution of SE Asia's mantle from geological reconstructions and
seismic tomography". Earth and Planetary Science Letters 221: 103.
Bibcode:2004E&PSL.221..103R. doi:10.1016/S0012-821X(04)00070-6.
13. Li, Chang; Van Der Hilst, Robert D.; Engdahl, E. Robert; Burdick, Scott (2008). "A new
global model for P wave speed variations in Earth's mantle". Geochemistry Geophysics
Geosystems 9 (5). Bibcode:2008GGG.....905018L. doi:10.1029/2007GC001806.
14. "Structure and formation of the continental tectosphere".
15. Nixon, P.H. (1987) Mantle xenoliths J. Wiley & Sons, 844 p. ISBN 0-471-91209-3
16. Carlson, Richard W. (2005). "Physical, chemical, and chronological characteristics of
continental mantle". Reviews of Geophysics 43. Bibcode:2005RvGeo..43.1001C.

Further reading

Chernicoff, Stanley; Whitney, Donna (1990). Geology. An Introduction to Physical

Geology (4th ed.). Pearson. ISBN 0131751247.

External links
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lithospheres.

Earth's Crust, Lithosphere and Asthenosphere

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