The lithosphere is the solid, outer part of Earth, including the brittle upper portion of the mantle and the crust.


3 - 12+


Earth Science, Geology, Geography, Physical Geography

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The lithosphere is the solid, outer part of the Earth. It includes the brittle upper portion of the mantle as well as the crust, which is the outermost layer of the planet.

The lithosphere is located below the atmosphere, which is the air that surrounds the planet, and above the asthenosphere. The asthenosphere is made of melted rock that gives it a thick, sticky consistency. The lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary (LAB) is the point where the solid lithosphere changes to the asthenosphere. The depth of the LAB is not fixed, but instead changes from place to place.

There are two types of lithosphere. They are oceanic lithosphere and continental lithosphere. Oceanic lithosphere is slightly denser. The oceanic lithosphere includes oceanic crust, which makes up the sea floor.

Plate Tectonics

The lithosphere is divided into huge slabs called tectonic plates. The heat from the mantle makes the rocks at the bottom of the lithosphere slightly elastic. This allows the plates to move. The movement of these plates is known as plate tectonics. Most tectonic activity takes place at the boundaries of these plates, where they collide, tear apart, or slide against each other.

Tectonic activity is responsible for many geologic events. Earthquakes, volcanoes, mountains and deep ocean trenches can all form this way.

The Lithosphere And Other Spheres

The solid rock of the lithosphere is one of five systems that influence the planet. Other "spheres" include the biosphere (living things), the cryosphere (ice), the hydrosphere (liquid water) and the atmosphere (the air surrounding the planet).

These spheres influence all of the natural world. For example, it takes a combination of these systems to create soil. Wind or rain can wear down rocks in the lithosphere. Then, plant and animal remains mix with these eroded rocks to create fertile soil.

Together, these systems shape every environment on Earth. In tall mountain ranges of the lithosphere, the thinner air and precipitation combine to create a cool or even icy climate zoneWind wears down rocks into sandy deserts. Healthy soil and rain make it easy for living things to grow in the forest. Plants and animals have adapted over time to fit these unique environments.

Fast Fact

Extraterrestrial Lithospheres
All terrestrial planets have lithospheres. The lithospheres of Mercury, Venus, and Mars are much thicker and more rigid than Earth's.

Fast Fact

The depth of the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary (LAB) is a hot topic among geologists and rheologists. These scientists study the upper mantle’s viscosity, temperature, and grain size of its rocks and minerals. What they have found varies widely, from a thinner, crust-deep boundary at ocean ridges to thick, 200-kilometer (124-mile) boundary beneath cratons, the oldest and most stable parts of continental lithosphere.

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Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

November 29, 2023

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