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What Is the Composition of the Earth's Crust?

Quick Answer
The Earth's crust is composed of several minerals and elements, including iron, oxygen, silicon, magnesium, sulfur
and nickel. Present in smaller amounts are calcium, aluminum and several other elements. The crust is the outermost
portion of the Earth.
Directly beneath the Earth's crust is the mantle. It is several hundred miles in depth and, like the Earth's crust,
contains various types of minerals. Magnesium and iron are found in silicate rocks in the mantle. Volcanoes can
originate from the mantle as heat causes the silicate rocks to rise up. Upon cooling, they sink back into the core. This
action causes tectonic plates to move, pushing the mantle through the crust and causing a volcano.
The innermost layer of the Earth is termed the core. The core has two layers, a solid inner core and a more liquid
outer core. Both parts of the inner core are several hundred miles thick. The inner core spins at a speed that is
different from the rest of the Earth, generating the magnetic field of the Earth. Northern and southern lights, known as
auroras, are the result of charged particles colliding with molecules above the Earth's magnetic poles.

Why the Earth's Crust Is So Important


The Earth's crust is an extremely thin layer of rock that makes up the outermost solid shell of our planet. In relative
terms, it's thickness is like that of the skin of an apple. It amounts to less than half of 1 percent of the planet's total
mass but plays a vital role in most of Earth's natural cycles.

The crust can be thicker than 80 kilometers in some spots and less than one kilometer thick in others. Underneath it
lies the mantle, a layer of silicate rock approximately 2700 kilometers thick. The mantle accounts for the bulk of the
Earth.

The crust is composed of many different types of rocks that fall into three main categories: igneous, metamorphic and
sedimentary. We know that the Earth's outer layer is made of two grand categories of rocks: basaltic and granitic.
Basaltic rocks underlie the seafloors and granitic rocks make up the continents.
In general, then, there are two kinds of crust: oceanic crust (basaltic) and continental crust (granitic).

Oceanic Crust
Oceanic crust covers about 60 percent of the Earth's surface. Oceanic crust is thin and young -- no more than about 20
km thick. Oceanic crust is born at the mid-ocean ridges, where plates are pulled apart. As that happens, the pressure
upon the underlying mantle is released and the peridotite there responds by starting to melt. The fraction that melts
becomes basaltic lava, which rises and erupts while the remaining peridotite becomes depleted.

The mid-ocean ridges migrate over the Earth, extracting this basaltic component from the peridotite of the mantle as
they go. This works like a chemical refining process. Basaltic rocks contain more silicon and aluminum than the
peridotite left behind, which has more iron and magnesium. Basaltic rocks are also less dense. In terms of minerals,
basalt has more feldspar and amphibole, less olivine and pyroxene, than peridotite.
Oceanic crust, being so thin, is a very small fraction of the Earth -- about 0.1 percent -- but its life cycle serves to
separate the contents of the upper mantle into a heavy residue and a lighter set of basaltic rocks. It also extracts the
so-called incompatible elements, which don't fit into mantle minerals and move into the liquid melt. These, in turn,
move into the continental crust as plate tectonics proceeds. Meanwhile, the oceanic crust reacts with seawater and
carries some of it down into the mantle.

Continental Crust
Continental crust is thick -- on average about 50 km thick -- and it covers about 40 percent of the planet. Whereas
almost all of the oceanic crust is underwater, most of the continental crust is exposed to the air.

The continents slowly grow over geologic time as oceanic crust and seafloor sediments are pulled beneath them by
subduction. The descending basalts have the water and incompatible elements squeezed out of them, and this material
rises to trigger more melting in the so-called subduction factory.

The continental crust is made of granitic rocks, which have even more silicon and aluminum than the basaltic oceanic
crust. They also have more oxygen thanks to the atmosphere. Granitic rocks are even less dense than basalt.

Continental crust makes up less than 0.4 percent of the Earth, but it represents the product of a double refining
process, first at mid-ocean ridges and second at subduction zones. The total amount of continental crust is slowly
growing.

The incompatible elements that end up in the continents are important because they include the major radioactive
elements uranium, thorium, and potassium. These create heat, which makes the continental crust act like an electric
blanket on top of the mantle. The heat also softens thick places in the crust, like the Tibetan Plateau, and makes them
spread sideways.