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Structure of the Earth

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Earth cutaway diagram. The proportions are not accurate.

The structure of the Earth is divided into layers. These layers are both physically and chemically different. The Earth has an outer solid crust, a highly viscous mantle, a liquid outer core, and a solid inner core.

The boundaries between these layers were discovered by seismographs detecting the way vibrations bounced off the layers during earthquakes. Between the Earth's crust and the mantle is a boundary called the Moho. It was the first discovery of a major change in the Earth's structure as one goes deeper.

  1. The crust is the outermost layer of the Earth. It is made of solid rocks. It is mostly made of the lighter elements, silicon, oxygen, aluminium. Because of this, it is known as sial (silicon = Si; aluminium = Al) or felsic.
  2. The mantle is the layer of the Earth right below the crust. It is made mostly of oxygen, silicon and the heavier element magnesium. It is known as siam (Si + am for magnesium) or mafic. The mantle itself is divided into layers.
    1. The uppermost part of the mantle is solid, and forms the base of the crust. It is made of the heavy rock peridotite. The continental and oceanic plates include both the crust proper and this uppermost solid layer of the mantle. Together this mass makes up the lithosphere. The lithosphere plates float on the semi-liquid aesthenosphere below.
    2. Upper aesthenosphere: magma
    3. Lower aesthenosphere
    4. Lower mantle
  3. The core is made of solid iron and nickel, and is about 5000–6000oC.
    1. Outer core is a liquid layer below the mantle,
    2. Inner core, is the very center of the Earth. It is very hot and, due to the high pressure, it is solid.[1]

A full explanation of these effects is not yet clear. It seems that with the increasing heat and pressure comes changes in the crystallization of minerals, so that the composition might be a kind of changing mixture of liquid and crystals.

The Moho

The Moho, properly called the Mohorovičić discontinuity, is the boundary between the Earth's crust and the mantle. It was discovered by a Croatian seismologist called Andrija Mohorovičić in 1909. He discovered that seismograms of earthquakes showed two kinds of seismic waves. There is a shallow slower wave which arrives first, and a deep faster wave which arrives second. He reasoned that the deeper wave changed speed as it got just below the mantle. The reason it went faster was that the material of the mantle was different from that of the crust.

The discontinuity lies 30–40 km below the surface of continents, and less deep below the ocean floors.[1]

Drilling holes

Geologists have been trying to get at the Moho for years. During the late 1950s and early 1960s Project Mohole did not get enough support, and was cancelled by the United States Congress in 1967. Efforts were also made by the Soviet Union. They reached a depth of 12,260 metres (40,220 ft) over 15 years, the world's deepest hole, before abandoning the attempt in 1989.[2]

Reaching the discontinuity is still an important scientific target. A more recent proposal considers a self-descending tungsten capsule. The idea is that the capsule would be filled with radioactive material. This would give off enough heat to melt the surrounding rock, and the capsule would be pulled down by gravity.[3]

The Japanese project Chikyū Hakken ("Earth discovery") plans to use a drilling shop to drill down through the thinner ocean crust. On 6 September 2012 Scientific deep sea drilling vessel Chikyu set a new world record by drilling down and obtaining rock samples from deeper than 2,111 meters below the seafloor off Shimokita Peninsula of Japan in the northwest Pacific Ocean.[4]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Levin H. 2006. The Earth through time. 8th ed, New York: Wiley. Chapter 7, p184. ISBN 0-471-69743-5
  2. "How the Soviets drilled the deepest hole in the world". Wired 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-26.
  3. Ozhovan M. et al 2005. Probing of the interior layers of the Earth with self-sinking capsules. Atomic Energy. 99, 556–562. doi:10.1007/s10512-005-0246-y .
  4. A report on the findings does not appear to be published yet. The following link is to the planning proposal, April 30 2012. [1]
es:Estructura interna de la Tierra