Earth's Interior & Plate Tectonics
Copyright © 1995-1997 by Rosanna L. Hamilton. All rights reserved.

A theory is a tool - not a creed. -J. J. Thomson


Table of Contents

The Earth's Interior

Just as a child may shake an unopened present in an attempt to discover the contents of a gift, so man must listen to the ring and vibration of our Earth in an attempt to discover its content. This is accomplished through seismology, which has become the principle method used in studying Earth's interior. Seismos is a Greek word meaning shock; akin to earthquake, shake, or violently moved. Seismology on Earth deals with the study of vibrations that are produced by earthquakes, the impact of meteorites, or artificial means such as an explosion. On these occasions, a seismograph is used to measure and record the actual movements and vibrations within the Earth and of the ground.

Types of seismic waves
(Adapted from, Beatty, 1990.)

Scientists categorize seismic movements into four types of diagnostic waves that travel at speeds ranging from 3 to 15 kilometers (1.9 to 9.4 miles) per second. Two of the waves travel around the surface of the Earth in rolling swells. The other two, Primary (P) or compression waves and Secondary (S) or shear waves, penetrate the interior of the Earth. Primary waves compress and dilate the matter they travel through (either rock or liquid) similar to sound waves. They also have the ability to move twice as fast as S waves. Secondary waves propagate through rock but are not able to travel through liquid. Both P and S waves refract or reflect at points where layers of differing physical properties meet. They also reduce speed when moving through hotter material. These changes in direction and velocity are the means of locating discontinuities.

Divisions in the Earth's Interior
(Adapted from, Beatty, 1990.)

Seismic discontinuities aid in distinguishing divisions of the Earth into inner core, outer core, D", lower mantle, transition region, upper mantle, and crust (oceanic and continental). Lateral discontinuities also have been distinguished and mapped through seismic tomography but shall not be discussed here.

The Lithosphere & Plate Tectonics

Oceanic Lithosphere

The rigid, outermost layer of the Earth comprising the crust and upper mantle is called the lithosphere. New oceanic lithosphere forms through volcanism in the form of fissures at mid-ocean ridges which are cracks that encircle the globe. Heat escapes the interior as this new lithosphere emerges from below. It gradually cools, contracts and moves away from the ridge, traveling across the seafloor to subduction zones in a process called seafloor spreading. In time, older lithosphere will thicken and eventually become more dense than the mantle below, causing it to descend (subduct) back into the Earth at a steep angle, cooling the interior. Subduction is the main method of cooling the mantle below 100 kilometers (62.5 miles). If the lithosphere is young and thus hotter at a subduction zone, it will be forced back into the interior at a lesser angle.

Continental Lithosphere

The continental lithosphere is about 150 kilometers (93 miles) thick with a low-density crust and upper-mantle that are permanently buoyant. Continents drift laterally along the convecting system of the mantle away from hot mantle zones toward cooler ones, a process known as continental drift. Most of the continents are now sitting on or moving toward cooler parts of the mantle, with the exception of Africa. Africa was once the core of Pangaea, a supercontinent that eventually broke into todays continents. Several hundred million years prior to the formation of Pangaea, the southern continents - Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, and India - were assembled together in what is called Gondwana.

Plate Tectonics

Crustal Plate Boundaries
(Courtesy NGDC)

Plate tectonics involves the formation, lateral movement, interaction, and destruction of the lithospheric plates. Much of Earth's internal heat is relieved through this process and many of Earth's large structural and topographic features are consequently formed. Continental rift valleys and vast plateaus of basalt are created at plate break up when magma ascends from the mantle to the ocean floor, forming new crust and separating midocean ridges. Plates collide and are destroyed as they descend at subduction zones to produce deep ocean trenches, strings of volcanoes, extensive transform faults, broad linear rises, and folded mountain belts. Earth's lithosphere presently is divided into eight large plates with about two dozen smaller ones that are drifting above the mantle at the rate of 5 to 10 centimeters (2 to 4 inches) per year. The eight large plates are the African, Antarctic, Eurasian, Indian-Australian, Nazca, North American, Pacific, and South American plates. A few of the smaller plates are the Anatolian, Arabian, Caribbean, Cocos, Philippine, and Somali plates.


Beatty, J. K. and A. Chaikin, eds. The New Solar System. Massachusetts: Sky Publishing, 3rd Edition, 1990.

Press, Frank and Raymond Siever. Earth. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1986.

Seeds, Michael A. Horizons. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1995.




Calvin J. Hamilton