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Earth's Crust, Lithosphere and Asthenosphere - Windows to the Universe

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Hands On Mineral Identification helps you to identify over 14,500 minerals! By M. Darby Dyar, Ph.D. See our DVD collection.
This drawing shows the Earth's lithosphere (crust and upper mantle) on top of the asthenosphere.
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The Earth's Crust, Lithosphere and Asthenosphere

Crust, the upper layer of the Earth, is not always the same. Crust under the oceans is only about 5 km thick while continental crust can be up to 65 km thick. Also, ocean crust is made of denser minerals than continental crust.

The tectonic plates are made up of Earth’s crust and the upper part of the mantle layer underneath. Together the crust and upper mantle are called the lithosphere and they extend about 80 km deep. The lithosphere is broken into giant plates that fit around the globe like puzzle pieces. These puzzle pieces move a little bit each year as they slide on top of a somewhat fluid part of the mantle called the asthenosphere. All this moving rock can cause earthquakes.

The asthenosphere is ductile and can be pushed and deformed like silly putty in response to the warmth of the Earth. These rocks actually flow, moving in response to the stresses placed upon them by the churning motions of the deep interior of the Earth. The flowing asthenosphere carries the lithosphere of the Earth, including the continents, on its back.


Last modified May 21, 2008 by Lisa Gardiner.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF