Reading: Studying the Earth’s Interior

The following table summarizes the physical layers of the earth.

Physical Layers of Earth
Layer Physical Behavior Thickness
Lithosphere rigid, brittle at shallow depths 5–200 km
Asthenosphere ductile 100–300 km
Upper Mesosphere rigid, not brittle, rapid increase in density with depth 300–400 km
Lower Mesosphere denser and more rigid than upper mesosphere 2,300 km
Outer Core liquid 2,300 km
Inner Core rigid, not brittle 1,200 km

Earth’s Magnetic Field Originates in the Core

The liquid outer core is the source of the earth’s magnetic field, as a result of its metallic nature, which means it contains electrons not attached to particular nuclei. Heat is transferred upward to the mantle from the inner core via convective cells, in which the liquid in the outer core flows in looping patterns. The combination of the loose electrons and looping convective flow with the rotation of the earth results in a geodynamo that produces a magnetic field. Because the magnetic field is generated by a dynamically convecting and rotating sphere of liquid, it is unstable. Every now and then, after several hundred thousand to several million years, the earth’s magnetic field becomes unstable to the point that it temporarily shuts down. When it restarts, its north and south magnetic poles must inevitably be reversed, according to the physics of magnetic fields produced spontaneously from geodyamos. (For comparison, the magnetic field of the Sun, which is also produces by convecting electrical charges in a rotating sphere, becomes magnetically unstable and reverses its magnetic field on a more regular basis, every 11 years.)

Given that the inner core is a solid metallic sphere, made mostly of iron and nickel, surrounded entirely by liquid, it can be pictured as a giant ball bearing spinning in a pressurized fluid. Detailed studies of earthquake waves passing through the inner core have found evidence that it is spinning – rotating – just slightly faster than the rest of the earth.

Beyond Simple Layers

The interior of the earth is not simply layered. Some of the layers, particularly the crust and lithosphere, are highly variable in thickness. The boundaries between layers are rough and irregular. Some layers penetrate other layers at certain places. Variations in the thickness of the earth’s layers, irregularities in layer boundaries, and interpenetrations of layers, reflect the dynamic nature of the earth.

For example, the lithosphere penetrates deep into the mesosphere at subduction zones. Although it is still a matter of research and debate, there is some evidence that subducted plates may penetrate all the way into the lower mesosphere. If so, plate tectonics is causing extensive mixing and exchange of matter in the earth, from the bottom of the mantle to the top of the crust.

As another example, hot spots may be places where gases and fluids rise from the core-mantle boundary, along with heat. Studies of helium isotopes in hot spot volcanic rocks find evidence that much of the helium comes from deep in the earth, probably from the lower mesosphere.

How Do We Know?

We humans have no hands-on access to samples of the earth’s interior from deeper than the upper mantle. The earth’s core is so dense and so deep, it is completely inaccessible. Contrary to a popular misconception, lava does not come from the earth’s core. Magma and lava come from only the lithosphere and asthenosphere, the upper 200 km of earth’s 6,400 km thickness. Attempts have been made to drill through the crust to reach the mantle, without success. Given the lack of actual pieces of the earth from deeper than the asthenosphere, how do we know about the internal layers of the earth, what they are made of, and what their properties and processes are?

Igneous Rocks and Fault Blocks

There are two sources of rock samples from the lower lithosphere and asthenosphere, igneous rocks and fault blocks. Some igneous rocks contain xenoliths, pieces of solid rock that were adjacent to the body of magma, became incorporated into the magma, and were carried upward in the magma. From xenoliths in plutonic and volcanic igneous rocks, many samples of the lower crust and upper mantle have been identified and studied.

Another source of pieces of the lower crust and upper mantle is fault zones and exposed orogenic zones (root zones of mountains that have been exposed after much uplift and erosion). Some slabs of thrust-faulted rock contain lithospheric mantle rock. In ophiolites, ultramafic rock from the mantle part of the lithosphere is a defining attribute. Most ophiolites and thrust-faulted slices of rock that contain pieces of the upper mantle are related to either subduction zones or transform plate boundaries.

Seismic Waves

The energy from earthquakes travels in waves. The study of seismic waves is known as seismology. Seismologists use seismic waves to learn about earthquakes and also to learn about the Earth’s interior.

One ingenious way scientists learn about Earth’s interior is by looking at earthquake waves. Seismic waves travel outward in all directions from where the ground breaks and are picked up by seismographs around the world. Two types of seismic waves are most useful for learning about Earth’s interior.

Body Waves

P-waves and S-waves are known as body waves because they move through the solid body of the Earth. P-waves travel through solids, liquids, and gases. S-waves only move through solids (Figure 1). Surface waves only travel along Earth’s surface. In an earthquake, body waves produce sharp jolts. They do not do as much damage as surface waves.

Pictures of body waves and surface waves

Figure 1. Body and Surface Waves

Waves are deflected and bent as they hit the earth's core. No waves reach the earth’s crust across a forty degree arc of the earth’s surface, this is called a shadow zone.

Figure 2. How P-waves travel through Earth’s interior.

  • P-waves (primary waves) are fastest, traveling at about 6 to 7 kilometers (about 4 miles) per second, so they arrive first at the seismometer. P-waves move in a compression/expansion type motion, squeezing and unsqueezing Earth materials as they travel. This produces a change in volume for the material. P-waves bend slightly when they travel from one layer into another. Seismic waves move faster through denser or more rigid material. As P-waves encounter the liquid outer core, which is less rigid than the mantle, they slow down. This makes the P-waves arrive later and further away than would be expected. The result is a P-wave shadow zone. No P-waves are picked up at seismographs 104o to 140o from the earthquakes focus.
  • S-waves (secondary waves) are about half as fast as P-waves, traveling at about 3.5 km (2 miles) per second, and arrive second at seismographs. S-waves move in an up and down motion perpendicular to the direction of wave travel. This produces a change in shape for the Earth materials they move through. Only solids resist a change in shape, so S-waves are only able to propagate through solids. S-waves cannot travel through liquid.

Where seismic waves speed up or slow down, they refract, changing the direction in which they are traveling. Where seismic waves encounter an abrupt boundary between two very different layers, some of the seismic wave energy is reflected, bouncing back at the same angle it struck. The reflections and refractions of seismic waves allow the layers and boundaries within the earth to be located and studied.

By tracking seismic waves, scientists have learned what makes up the planet’s interior (figure 2).

  • P-waves slow down at the mantle core boundary, so we know the outer core is less rigid than the mantle.
  • S-waves disappear at the mantle core boundary, so the outer core is liquid.
Diagram of waves traveling through the earth as described.

Figure 3. Letters describe the path of an individual P-wave or S-wave. Waves traveling through the core take on the letter K.

Here are some examples of what we have been able to distinguish in the earth’s interior from the study of seismic waves and how they travel through the layers of the earth:

  1. The thickness of the crust. This is a measure of the thickness of the crust based on the abrupt increase in speed of seismic waves that occurs when they enter the mantle. The boundary between the crust and mantle, as inferred from the change in the speed of P- and S-waves, is called the Mohorovicic discontinuity, named after the Croatian seismologist who first discerned it; usually it is referred to simply as the Moho. It is mainly from seismic waves that we know how thin oceanic crust is and how thick continental crust is.
  2. The thickness of the lithosphere. Where seismic waves pass down from the lithosphere into the asthenosphere, they slow down. This is because of the lower rigidity and compressibility of the rocks in the layer below the lithosphere. The zone below the lithosphere where seismic waves travel more slowly is called the low velocity zone. The low velocity zone is probably coincident with the asthenosphere.
  3. The boundary between the upper and lower mesosphere (upper and lower mantle). This shows up as an increase in seismic wave speed at a depth of 660 km.
  4. The boundary between the mantle and the core. This is marked by S-waves coming to an abrupt stop, presumably because the outer core is liquid, and a sudden large reduction in the speed of P-waves, as they enter the liquid core where there is no rigidity to contribute to P-wave speed.
  5. The inner core. This was first recognized by refraction of P-waves passing through this part of the core, due to an abrupt increase in their speed, which was not shown by P-waves traveling through only the outer part of the core.
  6. Seismic tomography: imaging slabs and masses at various orientations in the earth, not just in layers. By combining data from many seismometers, three-dimensional images of zones in the earth that have higher or lower seismic wave speeds can be constructed. Seismic tomography shows that in some places there are masses of what may be subducted plates that have penetrated below the asthenosphere into the mesosphere and, in some cases, penetrated into the lower mesosphere, the deepest part of the mantle. In other places, subducted plates appear to have piled up at the base of the upper mesosphere without penetrating into the lower mesosphere.


Isaac Newton was the first to calculate the total mass of the earth. This gives us an important constraint on what the earth is made of, because, by dividing the mass of the earth by the volume of the earth, we know the average density of the earth. Whatever the earth is made of, it must add up to the correct amount of mass. Gravity measurements, and the earth’s mass, tell us that the interior of the earth must be denser than the crust, because the average density of earth is much higher than the density of the crust.

Because different parts of the crust, mantle, and core have different thicknesses and densities, the strength of gravity over particular points on earth varies slightly. These variations from the average strength of earth’s gravity are called gravity anomalies. Mapping and analyzing gravity anomalies, in some cases by using satellites, and also be measuring the effect of gravity anomalies on the surface shape of the ocean, has given us much insight into subduction zones, mid-ocean spreading ridges, and mountain ranges, including constraints on the depths of their roots.

Moment of Inertia

The earth’s gravity tells us how much total mass the earth has, but does not tell us how the mass is distributed within the earth. A property known as moment of inertia, which is the resistance (inertia) of an object to changes in its spin (rotation), is determined by exactly how matter is distributed in a spinning object, from its core to its surface. The earth’s moment of inertia is measured by its effect on other objects with which it interacts gravitationally, including the Moon, and satellites. Knowing the earth’s moment of inertia provides a way of checking and refining our understanding of the mass and density of each of the earth’s internal layers.


Studies of meteorites, which are pieces of asteroids that have landed on earth, along with astronomical studies of what the Sun, the other planets, and orbiting asteroids are made of, give us a model for the general chemical composition of objects in the inner solar system, which are made mainly of elements that form rocks and metals, as opposed to the outer planets such as Jupiter, which are made mostly of light, gas-forming elements. The general compositional model of the rocky and metallic part of the solar system has much higher percentages of iron, nickel, and magnesium than is found in the earth’s crust.

If the earth’s mantle is made of ultramafic rock, as is found in actual samples of the upper mantle in xenoliths and ophiolites, that would account for part of the missing iron, nickel, and magnesium. But much more iron and nickel would still be missing. If the core is made mostly of iron, and abundant nickel as well, it would give the earth an overall composition similar to the composition of other objects in the inner solar system, and similar to the proportions of rock and metal-forming elements measured in the Sun.

A mantle with an ultramafic composition, and a core made mostly of iron plus nickel, would make earth’s composition match the composition of the rest of the solar system, and give those layers the right densities to account for the earth’s moment of inertia and total mass.


Geology, like other sciences, is based on experiment along with observation and theory. earth scientists and physicists have developed experimental methods to study how materials behave at the pressures and temperatures of the earth’s interior, including core temperatures and pressures. They can measure such properties as the density, the state of matter (liquid or solid), the rigidity, the compressibility, and the speed at which seismic waves pass through these materials at high pressures and temperatures. These studies allow further refinement of our knowledge of what the interior of the earth is made of and how it behaves. These experiments support the theory that the mantle is ultramafic and the core is mostly iron and nickel, because they show that materials with those compositions have the same density and seismic wave speeds as have been observed in the earth.


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