The mantle is the mostly solid bulk of Earth's interior. The mantle lies between Earth's dense, super-heated core and its thin outer layer, the crust. The mantle is about 2,900 kilometers (1,802 miles) thick, and makes up a whopping 84 percent of Earth’s total volume.
9 - 12+
Earth Science, Geology, Geography, Physical Geography
The mantle is the mostly solid bulk of Earth’s interior. The mantle lies between Earth’s dense, superheated core and its thin outer layer, the crust. The mantle is about 2,900 kilometers (1,802 miles) thick, and makes up a whopping 84 percent of Earth’s total volume.
As Earth began to take shape about 4.5 billion years ago, iron and nickel quickly separated from other rocks and minerals to form the core of the new planet. The molten material that surrounded the core was the early mantle.
Over millions of years, the mantle cooled. Water trapped inside minerals erupted with lava, a process called “outgassing.” As more water was outgassed, the mantle solidified.
The rocks that make up Earth’s mantle are mostly silicates—a wide variety of compounds that share a silicon and oxygen structure. Common silicates found in the mantle include olivine, garnet, and pyroxene. The other major type of rock found in the mantle is magnesium oxide. Other mantle elements include iron, aluminum, calcium, sodium, and potassium. The temperature of the mantle varies greatly, from 1000°C (1832°F) near its boundary with the crust, to 3700°C (6692°F) near its boundary with the core. In the mantle, heat and pressure generally increase with depth. The geothermal gradient is a measurement of this increase. In most places, the geothermal gradient is about 25°C per kilometer of depth (1°Fper 70 feet of depth).
The viscosity of the mantle also varies greatly. It is mostly solid rock, but less viscous at tectonic plate boundaries and mantle plumes. Mantle rocks there are soft and able to move plastically (over the course of millions of years) at great depth and pressure. The transfer of heat and material in the mantle helps determine the landscape of Earth. Activity in the mantle drives plate tectonics, contributing to volcanoes, seafloor spreading, earthquakes, and orogeny (mountain-building).
The mantle is divided into several layers: the upper mantle, the transition zone, the lower mantle, and D” (D double-prime), the strange region where the mantle meets the outer core.
The upper mantle extends from the crust to a depth of about 410 kilometers (255 miles). The upper mantle is mostly solid, but its more malleable regions contribute to tectonic activity.
Two parts of the upper mantle are often recognized as distinct regions in Earth’s interior: the lithosphere and the asthenosphere.
The lithosphere is the solid, outer part of Earth, extending to a depth of about 100 kilometers (62 miles). The lithosphere includes both the crust and the brittle upper portion of the mantle. The lithosphere is both the coolest and the most rigid of Earth’s layers.
The most well-known feature associated with Earth’s lithosphere is tectonic activity. Tectonic activity describes the interaction of the huge slabs of lithosphere called tectonic plates. The lithosphere is divided into 15 major tectonic plates: the North American, Caribbean, South American, Scotia, Antarctic, Eurasian, Arabian, African, Indian, Philippine, Australian, Pacific, Juan de Fuca, Cocos, and Nazca.
The division in the lithosphere between the crust and the mantle is called the Mohorovicic discontinuity, or simply the Moho. The Moho does not exist at a uniform depth, because not all regions of Earth are equally balanced in isostatic equilibrium. Isostasy describes the physical, chemical, and mechanical differences that allow the crust to “float” on the sometimes more malleable mantle. The Moho is found at about eight kilometers (five miles) beneath the ocean and about 32 kilometers (20 miles) beneath continents.
Different types of rocks distinguish lithospheric crust and mantle. Lithospheric crust is characterized by gneiss (continental crust) and gabbro (oceanic crust). Below the Moho, the mantle is characterized by peridotite, a rock mostly made up of the minerals olivine and pyroxene.
The asthenosphere is the denser, weaker layer beneath the lithospheric mantle. It lies between about 100 kilometers (62 miles) and 410 kilometers (255 miles) beneath Earth’s surface. The temperature and pressure of the asthenosphere are so high that rocks soften and partly melt, becoming semi-molten.
The asthenosphere is much more ductile than either the lithosphere or lower mantle. Ductility measures a solid material’s ability to deform or stretch under stress. The asthenosphere is generally more viscous than the lithosphere, and the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary (LAB) is the point where geologists and rheologists—scientists who study the flow of matter—mark the difference in ductility between the two layers of the upper mantle.
The very slow motion of lithospheric plates “floating” on the asthenosphere is the cause of plate tectonics, a process associated with continental drift, earthquakes, the formation of mountains, and volcanoes. In fact, the lava that erupts from volcanic fissures is actually the asthenosphere itself, melted into magma.
Of course, tectonic plates are not really floating, because the asthenosphere is not liquid. Tectonic plates are only unstable at their boundaries and hot spots.
From about 410 kilometers (255 miles) to 660 kilometers (410 miles) beneath Earth’s surface, rocks undergo radical transformations. This is the mantle’s transition zone.
In the transition zone, rocks do not melt or disintegrate. Instead, their crystalline structure changes in important ways. Rocks become much, much more dense.
The transition zone prevents large exchanges of material between the upper and lower mantle. Some geologists think the increased density of rocks in the transition zone prevents subducted slabs from the lithosphere from falling further into the mantle. These huge pieces of tectonic plates stall in the transition zone for millions of years before mixing with other mantle rock and eventually returning to the upper mantle as part of the asthenosphere, erupting as lava, becoming part of the lithosphere, or emerging as new oceanic crust at sites of seafloor spreading.
Some geologists and rheologists, however, think subducted slabs can slip beneath the transition zone to the lower mantle. Other evidence suggests that the transition layer is permeable, and the upper and lower mantle exchange some amount of material.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the mantle’s transition zone is its abundance of water. Crystals in the transition zone hold as much water as all the oceans on Earth’s surface.
Water in the transition zone is not “water” as we know it. It is not liquid, vapor, solid, or even plasma. Instead, water exists as hydroxide. Hydroxide is an ion of hydrogen and oxygen with a negative charge. In the transition zone, hydroxide ions are trapped in the crystalline structure of rocks such as ringwoodite and wadsleyite. These minerals are formed from olivine at very high temperatures and pressure.
Near the bottom of the transition zone, increasing temperature and pressure transform ringwoodite and wadsleyite. Their crystal structures are broken and hydroxide escapes as “melt.” Melt particles flow upwards, toward minerals that can hold water. This allows the transition zone to maintain a consistent reservoir of water.
Geologists and rheologists think that water entered the mantle from Earth’s surface during subduction. Subduction is the process in which a dense tectonic plate slips or melts beneath a more buoyant one. Most subduction happens as an oceanic plate slips beneath a less-dense plate. Along with the rocks and minerals of the lithosphere, tons of water and carbon are also transported to the mantle. Hydroxide and water are returned to the upper mantle, crust, and even atmosphere through mantle convection, volcanic eruptions, and seafloor spreading.
The lower mantle extends from about 660 kilometers (410 miles) to about 2,700 kilometers (1,678 miles) beneath Earth’s surface. The lower mantle is hotter and denser than the upper mantle and transition zone.
The lower mantle is much less ductile than the upper mantle and transition zone. Although heat usually corresponds to softening rocks, intense pressure keeps the lower mantle solid.
Geologists do not agree about the structure of the lower mantle. Some geologists think that subducted slabs of lithosphere have settled there. Other geologists think that the lower mantle is entirely unmoving and does not even transfer heat by convection.
D Double-Prime (D’’)
Beneath the lower mantle is a shallow region called D'', or “d double-prime.” In some areas, D’’ is a nearly razor-thin boundary with the outer core. In other areas, D’’ has thick accumulations of iron and silicates. In still other areas, geologists and seismologists have detected areas of huge melt.
The unpredictable movement of materials in D’’ is influenced by the lower mantle and outer core. The iron of the outer core influences the formation of a diapir, a dome-shaped geologic feature (igneous intrusion) where more fluid material is forced into brittle overlying rock. The iron diapir emits heat and may release a huge, bulging pulse of either material or energy—just like a Lava Lamp. This energy blooms upward, transferring heat to the lower mantle and transition zone, and maybe even erupting as a mantle plume.
At the base of the mantle, about 2,900 kilometers (1,802 miles) below the surface, is the core-mantle boundary, or CMB. This point, called the Gutenberg discontinuity, marks the end of the mantle and the beginning of Earth’s liquid outer core.
Mantle convection describes the movement of the mantle as it transfers heat from the white-hot core to the brittle lithosphere. The mantle is heated from below, cooled from above, and its overall temperature decreases over long periods of time. All these elements contribute to mantle convection.
Convection currents transfer hot, buoyant magma to the lithosphere at plate boundaries and hot spots. Convection currents also transfer denser, cooler material from the crust to Earth’s interior through the process of subduction.
Earth's heat budget, which measures the flow of thermal energy from the core to the atmosphere, is dominated by mantle convection. Earth’s heat budget drives most geologic processes on Earth, although its energy output is dwarfed by solar radiation at the surface.
Geologists debate whether mantle convection is “whole” or “layered.” Whole-mantle convection describes a long, long recycling process involving the upper mantle, transition zone, lower mantle, and even D’’. In this model, the mantle convects in a single process. A subducted slab of lithosphere may slowly slip into the upper mantle and fall to the transition zone due to its relative density and coolness. Over millions of years, it may sink further into the lower mantle. Convection currents may then transport the hot, buoyant material in D’’ back through the other layers of the mantle. Some of that material may even emerge as lithosphere again, as it is spilled onto the crust through volcanic eruptions or seafloor spreading.
Layered-mantle convection describes two processes. Plumes of superheated mantle material may bubble up from the lower mantle and heat a region in the transition zone before falling back. Above the transition zone, convection may be influenced by heat transferred from the lower mantle as well as discrete convection currents in the upper mantle driven by subduction and seafloor spreading. Mantle plumes emanating from the upper mantle may gush up through the lithosphere as hot spots.
A mantle plume is an upwelling of superheated rock from the mantle. Mantle plumes are the likely cause of “hot spots,” volcanic regions not created by plate tectonics. As a mantle plume reaches the upper mantle, it melts into a diapir. This molten material heats the asthenosphere and lithosphere, triggering volcanic eruptions. These volcanic eruptions make a minor contribution to heat loss from Earth’s interior, although tectonic activity at plate boundaries is the leading cause of such heat loss.
The Hawaiian hot spot, in the middle of the North Pacific, sits above a likely mantle plume. As the Pacific plate moves in a generally northwestern motion, the Hawaiian hot spot remains relatively fixed. Geologists think this has allowed the Hawaiian hot spot to create a series of volcanoes, from the 85-million-year-old Meiji Seamount near Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, to the Loihi Seamount, a submarine volcano southeast of the “Big Island” of Hawai'i. Loihi, a mere 400,000 years old, will eventually become the newest Hawaiian island.
Geologists have identified two so-called “superplumes.” These superplumes, or large low shear velocity provinces (LLSVPs), have their origins in the melt material of D’’. The Pacific LLSVP influences geology throughout most of the southern Pacific Ocean (including the Hawaiian hot spot). The African LLSVP influences the geology throughout most of southern and western Africa.
Geologists think mantle plumes may be influenced by many different factors. Some may pulse, while others may be heated continually. Some may have a single diapir, while others may have multiple “stems.” Some mantle plumes may arise in the middle of a tectonic plate, while others may be “captured” by seafloor spreading zones.
Some geologists have identified more than a thousand mantle plumes. Some geologists think mantle plumes don’t exist at all. Until tools and technology allow geologists to more thoroughly explore the mantle, the debate will continue.
Exploring the Mantle
The mantle has never been directly explored. Even the most sophisticated drilling equipment has not reached beyond the crust.
Many geologists study the mantle by analyzing xenoliths. Xenoliths are a type of intrusion—a rock trapped inside another rock. The xenoliths that provide the most information about the mantle are diamonds. Diamonds form under very unique conditions: in the upper mantle, at least 150 kilometers (93 miles) beneath the surface. Above depth and pressure, the carbon crystallizes as graphite, not diamond. Diamonds are brought to the surface in explosive volcanic eruptions, forming “diamond pipes” of rocks called kimberlites and lamprolites. The diamonds themselves are of less interest to geologists than the xenoliths some contain. These intrusions are minerals from the mantle, trapped inside the rock-hard diamond. Diamond intrusions have allowed scientists to glimpse as far as 700 kilometers (435 miles) beneath Earth’s surface—the lower mantle. Xenolith studies have revealed that rocks in the deep mantle are most likely three-billion-year old slabs of subducted seafloor. The diamond intrusions include water, ocean sediments, and even carbon.
Most mantle studies are conducted by measuring the spread of shock waves from earthquakes, called seismic waves. The seismic waves measured in mantle studies are called body waves, because these waves travel through the body of Earth. The velocity of body waves differs with density, temperature, and type of rock.
There are two types of body waves: primary waves, or P-waves, and secondary waves, or S-waves. P-waves, also called pressure waves, are formed by compressions. Sound waves are P-waves—seismic P-waves are just far too low a frequency for people to hear. S-waves, also called shear waves, measure motion perpendicular to the energy transfer. S-waves are unable to transmit through fluids or gases. Instruments placed around the world measure these waves as they arrive at different points on Earth’s surface after an earthquake. P-waves (primary waves) usually arrive first, while s-waves arrive soon after.
Both body waves “reflect” off different types of rocks in different ways. This allows seismologists to identify different rocks present in Earth’s crust and mantle far beneath the surface. Seismic reflections, for instance, are used to identify hidden oil deposits deep below the surface.
Sudden, predictable changes in the velocities of body waves are called “seismic discontinuities.” The Moho is a discontinuity marking the boundary of the crust and upper mantle. The so-called “410-kilometer discontinuity” marks the boundary of the transition zone.
The Gutenberg discontinuity is more popularly known as the core-mantle boundary (CMB). At the CMB, S-waves, which can’t continue in liquid, suddenly disappear, and P-waves are strongly refracted, or bent. This alerts seismologists that the solid and molten structure of the mantle has given way to the fiery liquid of the outer core.
Cutting-edge technology has allowed modern geologists and seismologists to produce mantle maps. Most mantle maps display seismic velocities, revealing patterns deep below Earth’s surface. Geoscientists hope that sophisticated mantle maps can plot the body waves of as many as 6,000 earthquakes with magnitudes of at least 5.5. These mantle maps may be able to identify ancient slabs of subducted material and the precise position and movement of tectonic plates. Many geologists think mantle maps may even provide evidence for mantle plumes and their structure.
Earth’s Active Mantle
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March 1, 2023
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