USGS - science for a changing world

USGS Geology in the Parks

 
FOR BEGINNERS:
Into the Earth
brown square Crust, Mantle, Core
Putting the pieces together
brown square Map of world plates
The action is at the edges
brown square Divergent, convergent, transform plate boundaries
A slice through the Earth
brown square Plate processes illustrated
Moving through time
brown square 650 million years of plate tectonics

 

DETAILED VERSION:
brown square

This Dynamic Earth: The Story of Plate Tectonics

On-line version of the popular USGS booklet.

What on Earth is Plate Tectonics?

Map showing locations of the Earth's plates
cross-section through the Earth

Into the Earth

The story of plate tectonics really starts deep within the Earth, so lets take a look inside first. Although the Earth appears to be made up of solid rock to us surface-dwelling humans, it's actually made up of three distinct layers: the crust, mantle, and core. Each layer has its own unique properties and chemical composition.

Crust

The crust is the thin, solid, outermost layer of the Earth. The crust is thinnest beneath the oceans, averaging only 5 kilometers thick, and thickest beneath large mountain ranges. Continental crust (the crust that makes up the continents, of course!) is much more variable in thickness but averages about 30-35 km. Beneath large mountain ranges, such as the Himalayas or the Sierra Nevada, the crust reaches a thickness of up to 100 km.

Mantle

The layer below the crust is the mantle. The mantle has more iron and magnesium than the crust, making it more dense. The uppermost part of the mantle is solid and, along with the crust, forms the lithosphere. The rocky lithosphere is brittle and can fracture. This is the zone where earthquakes occur. It's the lithosphere that breaks into the thick, moving slabs of rock that geologist's call tectonic plates.

As we descend into the Earth temperature rises and we reach part of the mantle that is partially molten, the asthenosphere. As rock heats up, it becomes pliable or ‘plastic'. Rock here is hot enough to fold, stretch, compress, and flow very slowly without fracturing. Think about the behavior of Silly Putty® and you have the general idea. The plates, made up of the relatively light, rigid rock of the lithosphere actually ‘float' on the more dense, flowing asthenosphere!
Click to open Earth interior diagram

Core

At the center of the Earth lies the super-dense core. With a diameter of 3486 kilometers, the core is larger than the planet Mars! The core of the Earth is made up of two distinct layers: a liquid outer layer and a solid inner core. Unlike the Earth's outer layers with rocky compositions, the core is made up of metallic iron-nickel alloy. It's hard to imagine, but the core is about 5 times as dense as the rock we walk on at the surface!

Something extra: Using earthquakes to discover the core

Now climb back up to the lithosphere to take a closer look at tectonic plates.


| Into Earth | | Putting the pieces toge ther | | Action at the edges |
| National Parks by Tectonic Regions |
| Earth through time | | Detailed version: This Dynamic Earth |

 

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