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A lithosphere ( grc, λίθος [] for "rocky", and [] for "sphere") is the rigid, outermost shell of a terrestrial planet, terrestrial-type planet or natural satellite. On Earth, it is composed of the crust (geology), crust and the portion of the upper mantle (Earth), upper mantle that behaves elastically on time scales of up to thousands of years or more. The crust and upper mantle are distinguished on the basis of chemistry and mineralogy.

# Earth's lithosphere

Earth's lithosphere, which constitutes the hard and rigid outer vertical layer of the Earth, includes the crust and the uppermost mantle. The lithosphere is underlain by the
asthenosphere The asthenosphere ( grc, ἀσθενός 'asthenos''meaning "without strength", and thus "weak", and 'sphaira''meaning "sphere") is the highly viscous The viscosity of a fluid In physics, a fluid is a substance that continually Defor ...
which is the weaker, hotter, and deeper part of the upper mantle. The Lithosphere-Asthenosphere boundary is defined by a difference in response to stress: the lithosphere remains rigid for very long periods of geologic time in which it deforms elastically and through brittle failure, while the asthenosphere deforms viscously and accommodates strain through
plastic deformation In engineering, deformation refers to the change in size or shape of an object. ''Displacements'' are the ''absolute'' change in position of a point on the object. Deflection (engineering) , Deflection is the relative change in external displace ...
. The thickness of the lithosphere is thus considered to be the depth to the isotherm associated with the transition between brittle and viscous behavior. The temperature at which
olivine The mineral In geology and mineralogy, a mineral or mineral species is, broadly speaking, a solid chemical compound with a fairly well-defined chemical composition and a specific crystal structure that occurs naturally in pure form.John P. R ...

becomes ductile (~) is often used to set this isotherm because olivine is generally the weakest mineral in the upper mantle. The lithosphere is subdivided horizontally into
tectonic plates This is a list of tectonic plates on Earth's surface. Tectonic plates are pieces of Earth's crust 350px, Plates in the crust of Earth Earth's crust is a thin shell on the outside of Earth, accounting for less than 1% of Earth's volume. It is ...
, which often include
terrane In geology Geology (from the Ancient Greek γῆ, ''gē'' ("earth") and -λoγία, ''-logia'', ("study of", "discourse")) is an Earth science concerned with the solid Earth, the rock (geology), rocks of which it is composed, and the processes ...
s accreted from other plates.

## History of the concept

The concept of the lithosphere as Earth's strong outer layer was described by A.E.H. Love in his 1911 monograph "Some problems of Geodynamics" and further developed by Joseph Barrell, who wrote a series of papers about the concept and introduced the term "lithosphere". The concept was based on the presence of significant gravity anomalies over continental crust, from which he inferred that there must exist a strong, solid upper layer (which he called the lithosphere) above a weaker layer which could flow (which he called the asthenosphere). These ideas were expanded by
Reginald Aldworth Daly Reginald Aldworth Daly (March 18, 1871 – September 19, 1957) was a Canadian Canadians (french: Canadiens) are people identified with the country of Canada. This connection may be residential, legal, historical or cultural. For most Canadians ...
in 1940 with his seminal work "Strength and Structure of the Earth." They have been broadly accepted by geologists and geophysicists. These concepts of a strong lithosphere resting on a weak asthenosphere are essential to the theory of
plate tectonics upright=1.35, Diagram of the internal layering of Earth showing the lithosphere above the asthenosphere (not to scale) Plate tectonics (from the la, label=Late Latin Late Latin ( la, Latinitas serior) is the scholarly name for the written L ...
.

## Types

The lithosphere can be divided into oceanic and continental lithosphere. Oceanic lithosphere is associated with
oceanic crust The oceanic crust is the uppermost layer of the oceanic portion of the tectonic plates This is a list of tectonic plates on Earth's surface. Tectonic plates are pieces of Earth's crust 350px, Plates in the crust of Earth Earth's crust i ...
(having a mean density of about ) and exists in the
ocean basin 400px, Diagrammatic cross-section of an ocean basin, showing the various geographic features In hydrology Hydrology (from Greek: wikt:ὕδωρ, ὕδωρ, "hýdōr" meaning "water" and wikt:λόγος, λόγος, "lógos" meaning "study") ...
s. Continental lithosphere is associated with
continental crust Continental crust is the layer of igneous Igneous rock (derived from the Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spoken in the ...
(having a mean density of about ) and underlies the continents and continental shelfs.

### Oceanic lithosphere

Oceanic lithosphere consists mainly of
mafic A mafic mineral or rock is a silicate mineral Silicate minerals are rock-forming mineral In geology and mineralogy, a mineral or mineral species is, broadly speaking, a solid chemical compound with a fairly well-defined chemical composit ...
crust and
ultramafic Ultramafic rocks (also referred to as ultrabasic rocks, although the terms are not wholly equivalent) are igneous Igneous rock (derived from the Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch o ...
mantle (
peridotite Peridotite ( ) is a dense, coarse-grained igneous rock Igneous rock (derived from the Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally spok ...
) and is denser than continental lithosphere. Young oceanic lithosphere, found at
mid-ocean ridge A mid-ocean ridge (MOR) is a seafloor mountain system formed by plate tectonics File:Earth cutaway schematic-en.svg, upright=1.35, Diagram of the internal layering of Earth showing the lithosphere above the asthenosphere (not to scale) Plate ...
s, is no thicker than the crust, but oceanic lithosphere thickens as it ages and moves away from the mid-ocean ridge. The oldest oceanic lithosphere is typically about thick. This thickening occurs by conductive cooling, which converts hot asthenosphere into lithospheric mantle and causes the oceanic lithosphere to become increasingly thick and dense with age. In fact, oceanic lithosphere is a thermal boundary layer for the
convection Convection is single or multiphase fluid flow that occurs Spontaneous process, spontaneously due to the combined effects of material property heterogeneity and body forces on a fluid, most commonly density and gravity (see buoyancy). When t ...
in the mantle. The thickness of the mantle part of the oceanic lithosphere can be approximated as a thermal boundary layer that thickens as the square root of time. $h \, \sim \, 2\, \sqrt$ Here, $h$ is the thickness of the oceanic mantle lithosphere, $\kappa$ is the
thermal diffusivityIn heat transfer analysis, thermal diffusivity is the thermal conductivity divided by density and specific heat capacity at constant pressure. It measures the rate of transfer of heat of a material from the hot end to the cold end. It has the SI deri ...
(approximately ) for silicate rocks, and $t$ is the age of the given part of the lithosphere. The age is often equal to L/V, where L is the distance from the spreading centre of
mid-oceanic ridge A mid-ocean ridge (MOR) is a seafloor mountain system formed by plate tectonics. It typically has a depth of ~ and rises about two kilometers above the deepest portion of an ocean basin. This feature is where seafloor spreading takes place along ...
, and V is velocity of the lithospheric plate. Oceanic lithosphere is less dense than asthenosphere for a few tens of millions of years but after this becomes increasingly denser than asthenosphere. While chemically differentiated oceanic crust is lighter than asthenosphere,
thermal contraction Example of a thermal column between the ground and a cumulus A thermal column (or thermal) is a column of rising air in the lower altitudes of Earth's atmosphere File:Atmosphere gas proportions.svg, Composition of Earth's atmosphere by vo ...
of the mantle lithosphere makes it more dense than the asthenosphere. The gravitational instability of mature oceanic lithosphere has the effect that at
subduction zone Subduction is a geological process in which the oceanic lithosphere is recycled into the Earth's mantle at convergent boundaries. Where the oceanic lithosphere of a tectonic plate This is a list of tectonic plates on Earth's surface. Tec ...
s, oceanic lithosphere invariably sinks underneath the overriding lithosphere, which can be oceanic or continental. New oceanic lithosphere is constantly being produced at mid-ocean ridges and is recycled back to the mantle at subduction zones. As a result, oceanic lithosphere is much younger than continental lithosphere: the oldest oceanic lithosphere is about 170 million years old, while parts of the continental lithosphere are billions of years old.

### = Subducted lithosphere

= Geophysical studies in the early 21st century posit that large pieces of the lithosphere have been subducted into the mantle as deep as to near the core-mantle boundary, while others "float" in the upper mantle. Yet others stick down into the mantle as far as but remain "attached" to the continental plate above, similar to the extent of the "tectosphere" proposed by Jordan in 1988. Subducting lithosphere remains rigid (as demonstrated by deep
earthquake An earthquake (also known as a quake, tremor or temblor) is the shaking of the surface of the Earth resulting from a sudden release of energy in the Earth Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the only astronomical object known ...

s along
Wadati–Benioff zone Image:Kuril Benioff zone.JPG, 240px, Seismicity cross-section, Kuril Islands subduction zone, 2006 Kuril Islands earthquake, 15 November 2006, 8.3 Mw event marked as star A Wadati–Benioff zone (also Benioff–Wadati zone or Benioff zone or Beniof ...
) to a depth of about .

### Continental lithosphere

Continental lithosphere has a range in thickness from about to perhaps ; the upper approximately of typical continental lithosphere is crust. The crust is distinguished from the upper mantle by the change in chemical composition that takes place at the Moho discontinuity. The oldest parts of continental lithosphere underlie
craton A craton (, , or ; from el, κράτος ''kratos'' "strength") is an old and stable part of the continental lithosphere A lithosphere ( grc, λίθος [] for "rocky", and [] for "sphere") is the rigid, outermost shell of a terrestrial p ...
s, and the mantle lithosphere there is thicker and less dense than typical; the relatively low density of such mantle "roots of cratons" helps to stabilize these regions. Because of its relatively low density, continental lithosphere that arrives at a subduction zone cannot subduct much further than about before resurfacing. As a result, continental lithosphere is not recycled at subduction zones the way oceanic lithosphere is recycled. Instead, continental lithosphere is a nearly permanent feature of the Earth.

# Mantle xenoliths

Geoscientists can directly study the nature of the subcontinental mantle by examining mantle
xenolithImage:XenolithSierra.JPG, Gabbroic xenolith in granite in Rock Creek Canyon, eastern Sierra Nevada (U.S.), Sierra Nevada, California A xenolith ("foreign rock") is a rock (geology), rock fragment (country rock) that becomes enveloped in a larger ro ...
s brought up in
kimberlite Cross-section of kimberlite from South Africa. The kimberlite matrix is made up of clay minerals and carbonates, presented in blue, purple and buff colours. Kimberlite is an igneous rock, which sometimes contains diamonds. It is named after the ...

,
lamproite Lamproite is an ultrapotassicUltrapotassic igneous rocks are a class of rare, volumetrically minor and generally ultramafic Ultramafic rocks (also referred to as ultrabasic rocks, although the terms are not wholly equivalent) are igneous Igneo ...
, and other
volcanic pipe Volcanic pipes or volcanic conduits are subterranean geological Geology (from the Ancient Greek γῆ, ''gē'' ("earth") and -λoγία, ''-logia'', ("study of", "discourse")) is an Earth science concerned with the solid Earth, the rock (geolo ...
s. The histories of these xenoliths have been investigated by many methods, including analyses of abundances of isotopes of
osmium Osmium (from Greek#REDIRECT Greek Greek may refer to: Greece Anything of, from, or related to Greece Greece ( el, Ελλάδα, , ), officially the Hellenic Republic, is a country located in Southeast Europe. Its population is approximat ...

and
rhenium Rhenium is a chemical element with the Symbol (chemistry), symbol Re and atomic number 75. It is a silvery-gray, heavy, third-row transition metal in group 7 element, group 7 of the periodic table. With an estimated average concentration of 1 pa ...

. Such studies have confirmed that mantle lithospheres below some cratons have persisted for periods in excess of 3 billion years, despite the mantle flow that accompanies plate tectonics.

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Carbonate–silicate cycle The carbonate–silicate geochemical cycle, also known as the inorganic carbon cycle, describes the long-term transformation of silicate In chemistry Chemistry is the scientific discipline involved with Chemical element, elements and chemica ...
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Climate system Earth's climate arises from the interaction of five major climate system components: the Atmosphere of Earth, atmosphere (air), the hydrosphere (water), the cryosphere (ice and permafrost), the lithosphere (earth's upper rocky layer) and the biosp ...
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Cryosphere The cryosphere (from the Greek ''kryos'', "cold", "frost" or "ice" and ''sphaira'', "globe, ball") is an all-encompassing term for those portions of Earth Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the only astronomical object known to ...
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Geosphere There are several conflicting definitions for geosphere. It may be taken as the collective name for the lithosphere A lithosphere ( grc, wikt:λίθος#Ancient Greek, λίθος [] for "rocky", and [] for "sphere") is the rigid, outermost s ...

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Kola Superdeep Borehole The Kola Superdeep Borehole (russian: Кольская сверхглубокая скважина, translit=Kol'skaya sverkhglubokaya skvazhina) SG-3SG (СГ) is a Russian designation for superdeep (сверхглубокая) borehole intende ...
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Solid earthSolid earth refers to "the earth beneath our feet" or '' terra firma'', the planet's solid surface and its interior. It contrasts with the Earth's fluid envelopes, the atmosphere and hydrosphere (but includes the ocean basin), as well as the bio ...
* Vertical Displacement *
Mohorovičić discontinuity The Mohorovičić discontinuity ( , ), usually referred to as the Moho discontinuity or the Moho, is the boundary between the Earth Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the only astronomical object known to harbor life. About 29% of ...