How Do Volcanoes Erupt?

Cleveland Volcano Eruption

Volcanoes come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from common cinder cone volcanoes that build up from repeated eruptions and lava domes that pile up over volcanic vents to broad shield volcanoes and composite volcanoes. Though they differ in terms of structure and appearance, they all share two things. On the one hand, they are all awesome forces of nature that both terrify and inspire.

On the other, all volcanic activity comes down to the same basic principle. In essence, all eruptions are the result of magma from beneath the Earth being pushed up to the surface where it erupts as lava, ash and rock. But what mechanisms drive this process? What is it exactly that makes molten rock rise from the Earth’s interior and explode onto the landscape?

To understand how volcanoes erupt, one first needs to consider the structure of the Earth. At the very top is the lithosphere, the outermost layers of the Earth that consists of the upper mantle and crust. The crust makes up a tiny volume of the Earth, ranging from 10 km in thickness on the ocean floor to a maximum of 100 km in mountainous regions. It is cold and rigid, and composed primarily of silicate rock.

The Earth's layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit:
The Earth’s layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit:

Beneath the crust, the Earth’s mantle is divided into sections of varying thickness based on their seismology. These consist of the upper mantle, which extends from a depth of 7 – 35 km (4.3 to 21.7 mi)) to 410 km (250 mi); the transition zone, which ranges from 410–660 km (250–410 mi); the lower mantle, which ranges from 660–2,891 km (410–1,796 mi); and the core–mantle boundary, which is ~200 km (120 mi) thick on average.

In the mantle region, conditions change drastically from the crust. Pressures increase considerably and temperatures can reach up to 1000 °C, which makes the rock viscous enough that it behaves like a liquid. In short, it experiences elastically on time scales of thousands of years or greater. This viscous, molten rock collects into vast chambers beneath the Earth’s crust.

Since this magma is less dense than the surrounding rock, it ” floats” up to the surface, seeking out cracks and weaknesses in the mantle. When it finally reaches the surface, it explodes from the summit of a volcano. When it’s beneath the surface, the molten rock is called magma. When it reaches the surface, it erupts as lava, ash and volcanic rocks.

The Earth's Tectonic Plates. Credit:
The Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit:

With each eruption, rocks, lava and ash build up around the volcanic vent. The nature of the eruption depends on the viscosity of the magma. When the lava flows easily, it can travel far and create wide shield volcanoes. When the lava is very thick, it creates a more familiar cone volcano shape (aka. a cinder cone volcano). When the lava is extremely thick, it can build up in the volcano and explode (lava domes).

Another mechanism that drives volcanism is the motion the crust undergoes. To break it down, the lithosphere is divided into several plates, which are constantly in motion atop the mantle. Sometimes the plates collide, pull apart, or slide alongside each other; resulting in convergent boundaries, divergent boundaries, and transform boundaries. This activity is what drives geological activity, which includes earthquakes and volcanoes.

In the case of the former, subduction zones are often the result, where the heavier plate slips under the lighter plate – forming a deep trench. This subduction changes the dense mantle into buoyant magma, which rises through the crust to the Earth’s surface. Over millions of years, this rising magma creates a series of active volcanoes known as a volcanic arc.

Cross-section of a volcano. Credit:!
Cross-section of a volcano. Credit:

In short, volcanoes are driven by pressure and heat in the mantle, as well as tectonic activity that leads to volcanic eruptions and geological renewal. The prevalence of volcanic eruptions in certain regions of the world – such as the Pacific Ring of Fire – also has a profound impact on the local climate and geography. For example, such regions are generally mountainous, have rich soil, and periodically experience the formation of new landmasses.

We have written many articles about volcanoes here at Universe Today. Here’s What are the Different Types of Volcanoes?, What are the Different Parts of a Volcano?, 10 Interesting Facts About Volcanoes?, What is the Pacific Ring of Fire?, Olympus Mons: The Largest Volcano in the Solar System.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

What is the Difference Between Lava and Magma?

Few forces in nature are are impressive or frightening as a volcanic eruption. In an instant, from within the rumbling depths of the Earth, hot lava, steam, and even chunks of hot rock are spewed into the air, covering vast distances with fire and ash. And thanks to the efforts of geologists and Earth scientists over the course of many centuries, we have to come to understand a great deal about them.

However, when it comes to the nomenclature of volcanoes, a point of confusion often arises. Again and again, one of the most common questions about volcanoes is, what is the difference between lava and magma? They are both molten rock, and are both associated with volcanism. So why the separate names? As it turns out, it all comes down to location.

Earth’s Composition:

As anyone with a basic knowledge of geology will tell you, the insides of the Earth are very hot. As a terrestrial planet, its interior is differentiated between a molten, metal core, and a mantle and crust composed primarily of silicate rock. Life as we know it, consisting of all vegetation and land animals, live on the cool crust, whereas sea life inhabits the oceans that cover a large extent of this same crust.

The Earth's layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit:
The Earth’s layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit:

However, the deeper one goes into the planet, both pressures and temperatures increase considerably. All told, Earth’s mantle extends to a depth of about 2,890 km, and is composed of silicate rocks that are rich in iron and magnesium relative to the overlying crust. Although solid, the high temperatures within the mantle cause pockets of molten rock to form.

This silicate material is less dense than the surrounding rock, and is therefore sufficiently ductile that it can flow on very long timescales. Over time, it will also reach the surface as geological forces push it upwards. This happens as a result of tectonic activity.

Basically, the cool, rigid crust is broken into pieces called tectonic plates. These plates are rigid segments that move in relation to one another at one of three types of plate boundaries. These are known as convergent boundaries, at which two plates come together; divergent boundaries, at which two plates are pulled apart; and transform boundaries, in which two plates slide past one another laterally.

Interactions between these plates are what is what is volcanic activity (best exemplified by the “Pacific Ring of Fire“) as well as mountain-building. As the tectonic plates migrate across the planet, the ocean floor is subducted – the leading edge of one plate pushing under another. At the same time, mantle material will push up at divergent boundaries, forcing molten rock to the surface.

The Earth's Tectonic Plates. Credit:
The Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit:


As already noted, both lava and magma are what results from rock superheated to the point where it becomes viscous and molten. But again, the location is the key. When this molten rock is still located within the Earth, it is known as magma. The name is derived from Greek, which translate to “thick unguent” (a word used to describe a viscous substance used for ointments or lubrication).

It is composed of molten or semi-molten rock, volatiles, solids (and sometimes crystals) that are found beneath the surface of the Earth. This vicious rock usually collects in a magma chamber beneath a volcano, or solidify underground to form an intrusion. Where it forms beneath a volcano, it can then be injected into cracks in rocks or issue out of volcanoes in eruptions. The temperature of magma ranges between 600 °C and 1600 °C.

Magma is also known to exist on other terrestrial planets in the Solar System (i.e. Mercury, Venus and Mars) as well as certain moons (Earth’s Moon and Jupiter’s moon Io). In addition to stable lava tubes being observed on Mercury, the Moon and Mars, powerful volcanoes have been observed on Io that are capable of sending lava jets 500 km (300 miles) into space.

Igneous rock (aka. "fire rock") is formed from cooled and solidified magma. Credit:
Igneous rock (aka. “fire rock”) is formed from cooled and solidified lava. Credit:


When magma reaches the surface and erupts from a volcano, it officially becomes lava. There are actually different kinds of lava depending on its thickness or viscosity. Whereas the thinnest lava can flow downhill for many kilometers (thus creating a gentle slope), thicker lavas will pile up around a  volcanic vent and hardly flow at all. The thickest lava doesn’t even flow, and just plugs up the throat of a volcano, which in some cases cause violent explosions.

The term lava is usually used instead of lava flow. This describes a moving outpouring of lava, which occurs when a non-explosive effusive eruption takes place. Once a flow has stopped moving, the lava solidifies to form igneous rock. Although lava can be up to 100,000 times more viscous than water, lava can flow over great distances before cooling and solidifying.

The word “lava” comes from Italian, and is probably derived from the Latin word labes which means “a fall” or “slide”. The first use in connection with a volcanic event was apparently in a short written account by Franscesco Serao, who observed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius between May 14th and June 4th, 1737. Serao described “a flow of fiery lava” as an analogy to the flow of water and mud down the flanks of the volcano following heavy rain.

Such is the difference between magma and lava. It seems that in geology, as in real estate, its all about location!

We have written many articles about volcanoes here at Universe Today. Here’s What is Lava?, What is the Temperature of Lava?, Igneous Rocks: How Are They Formed?, What Are The Different Parts Of A Volcano? and Planet Earth.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

What Is The Surface of Neptune Like?

Neptune Hurricanes

As a gas giant (or ice giant), Neptune has no solid surface. In fact, the blue-green disc we have all seen in photographs over the years is actually a bit of an illusion. What we see is actually the tops of some very deep gas clouds, which in turn give way to water and other melted ices that lie over an approximately Earth-size core made of silicate rock and a nickel-iron mix. If a person were to attempt to stand on Neptune, they would sink through the gaseous layers.

As they descended, they would experience increased temperatures and pressures until they finally touched down on the solid core itself. That being said, Neptune does have a surface of sorts, (as with the other gas and ice giants) which is defined by astronomers as being the point in the atmosphere where the pressure reaches one bar. Because of this, Neptune’s surface is one of the most active and dynamic places in entire the Solar System.

Continue reading “What Is The Surface of Neptune Like?”

What is the Earth’s Mantle Made Of?

The Earth's layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit:

Like all the other terrestrial planets, (Mercury, Venus, and Mars) the Earth is made up of many layers. This is the result of it undergoing planetary differentiation, where denser materials sink to the center to form the core while lighter materials form around the outside. Whereas the core is composed primarily of iron and nickel, Earth’s upper layer are composed of silicate rock and minerals.

This region is known as the mantle, and accounts for the vast majority of the Earth’s volume. Movement, or convection, in this layer is also responsible for all of Earth’s volcanic and seismic activity. Information about structure and composition of the mantle is either the result of geophysical investigation or from direct analysis of rocks derived from the mantle, or exposed mantle on the ocean floor.

Continue reading “What is the Earth’s Mantle Made Of?”

What are the Earth’s Layers?

The Earth's layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit:

There is more to the Earth than what we can see on the surface. In fact, if you were able to hold the Earth in your hand and slice it in half, you’d see that it has multiple layers. But of course, the interior of our world continues to hold some mysteries for us. Even as we intrepidly explore other worlds and deploy satellites into orbit, the inner recesses of our planet remains off limit from us.

However, advances in seismology have allowed us to learn a great deal about the Earth and the many layers that make it up. Each layer has its own properties, composition, and characteristics that affects many of the key processes of our planet. They are, in order from the exterior to the interior – the crust, the mantle, the outer core, and the inner core. Let’s take a look at them and see what they have going on.

Modern Theory:

Like all terrestrial planets, the Earth’s interior is differentiated. This means that its internal structure consists of layers, arranged like the skin of an onion. Peel back one, and you find another, distinguished from the last by its chemical and geological properties, as well as vast differences in temperature and pressure.

Our modern, scientific understanding of the Earth’s interior structure is based on inferences made with the help of seismic monitoring. In essence, this involves measuring sound waves generated by earthquakes, and examining how passing through the different layers of the Earth causes them to slow down. The changes in seismic velocity cause refraction which is calculated (in accordance with Snell’s Law) to determine differences in density.

Model of a flat Earth
Model of a flat Earth, with the continents modeled in a disk-shape and Antarctica as an ice wall. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

These are used, along with measurements of the gravitational and magnetic fields of the Earth and experiments with crystalline solids that simulate pressures and temperatures in the Earth’s deep interior, to determine what Earth’s layers looks like. In addition, it is understood that the differences in temperature and pressure are due to leftover heat from the planet’s initial formation, the decay of radioactive elements, and the freezing of the inner core due to intense pressure.

History of Study:

Since ancient times, human beings have sought to understand the formation and composition of the Earth. The earliest known cases were unscientific in nature – taking the form of creation myths or religious fables involving the gods. However, between classical antiquity and the medieval period, several theories emerged about the origin of the Earth and its proper makeup.

Most of the ancient theories about Earth tended towards the “Flat-Earth” view of our planet’s physical form. This was the view in Mesopotamian culture, where the world was portrayed as a flat disk afloat in an ocean. To the Mayans, the world was flat, and at it corners, four jaguars (known as bacabs) held up the sky. The ancient Persians speculated that the Earth was a seven-layered ziggurat (or cosmic mountain), while the Chinese viewed it as a four-side cube.

By the 6th century BCE, Greek philosophers began to speculate that the Earth was in fact round, and by the 3rd century BCE, the idea of a spherical Earth began to become articulated as a scientific matter. During the same period, the development of a geological view of the Earth also began to emerge, with philosophers understanding that it consisted of minerals, metals, and that it was subject to a very slow process of change.

Edmond Halley's model of a Hallow Earth, one that was made up of concentric spheres.
Illustration of Edmond Halley’s model of a Hallow Earth, one that was made up of concentric spheres. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Rick Manning

However, it was not until the 16th and 17th centuries that a scientific understanding of planet Earth and its structure truly began to advance. In 1692, Edmond Halley (discoverer of Halley’s Comet) proposed what is now known as the “Hollow-Earth” theory. In a paper submitted to Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society of London, he put forth the idea of Earth consisting of a hollow shell about 800 km thick (~500 miles).

Between this and an inner sphere, he reasoned there was an air gap of the same distance. To avoid collision, he claimed that the inner sphere was held in place by the force of gravity. The model included two inner concentric shells around an innermost core, corresponding to the diameters of the planets Mercury, Venus, and Mars respectively.

Halley’s construct was a method of accounting for the values of the relative density of Earth and the Moon that had been given by Sir Isaac Newton, in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) – which were later shown to be inaccurate. However, his work was instrumental to the development of geography and theories about the interior of the Earth during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Another important factor was the debate during the 17th and 18th centuries about the authenticity of the Bible and the Deluge myth. This propelled scientists and theologians to debate the true age of the Earth, and compelled the search for evidence that the Great Flood had in fact happened. Combined with fossil evidence, which was found within the layers of the Earth, a systematic basis for identifying and dating the Earth’s strata began to emerge.

The growing importance of mining in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly for precious metals, led to further developments in geology and Earth sciences. Credit:

The development of modern mining techniques and growing attention to the importance of minerals and their natural distribution also helped to spur the development of modern geology. In 1774, German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner published Von den äusserlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien (On the External Characters of Minerals) which presented a detailed system for identifying specific minerals based on external characteristics.

In 1741, the National Museum of Natural History in France created the first teaching position designated specifically for geology. This was an important step in further promoting knowledge of geology as a science and in recognizing the value of widely disseminating such knowledge. And by 1751, with the publication of the Encyclopédie by Denis Diderot, the term “geology” became an accepted term.

By the 1770s, chemistry was starting to play a pivotal role in the theoretical foundation of geology, and theories began to emerge about how the Earth’s layers were formed. One popular idea had it that liquid inundation, like the Biblical Deluge, was responsible for creating all the geological strata. Those who accepted this theory became known popularly as the Diluvianists or Neptunists.

Another thesis slowly gained currency from the 1780s forward, which stated that instead of water, strata had been formed through heat (or fire). Those who followed this theory during the early 19th century referred to this view as Plutonism, which held that the Earth formed gradually through the solidification of molten masses at a slow rate. These theories together led to the conclusion that the Earth was immeasurably older than suggested by the Bible.

HMS Beagle in the Galapagos (painted by John Chancellor) - Credit: hmsbeagleproject.otg
HMS Beagle in the Galapagos Islands, painted by John Chancellor. Credit: hmsbeagleproject.otg

In the early 19th century, the mining industry and Industrial Revolution stimulated the rapid development of the concept of the stratigraphic column – that rock formations were arranged according to their order of formation in time. Concurrently, geologists and natural scientists began to understand that the age of fossils could be determined geologically (i.e. that the deeper the layer they were found in was from the surface, the older they were).

During the imperial period of the 19th century, European scientists also had the opportunity to conduct research in distant lands. One such individual was Charles Darwin, who had been recruited by Captain FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle to study the coastal land of South America and give geological advice.

Darwin’s discovery of giant fossils during the voyage helped to establish his reputation as a geologist, and his theorizing about the causes of their extinction led to his theory of evolution by natural selection, published in On the Origin of Species in 1859.

During the 19th century, the governments of several countries including Canada, Australia, Great Britain and the United States began funding geological surveys that would produce geological maps of vast areas of the countries. Thought largely motivated by territorial ambitions and resource exploitation, they did benefit the study of geology.

The Earth's Tectonic Plates. Credit:
The Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit:

By this time, the scientific consensus established the age of the Earth in terms of millions of years, and the increase in funding and the development of improved methods and technology helped geology to move farther away from dogmatic notions of the Earth’s age and structure.

By the early 20th century, the development of radiometric dating (which is used to determine the age of minerals and rocks), provided the necessary the data to begin getting a sense of the Earth’s true age. By the turn of the century, geologists now believed the Earth to be 2 billion years old, which opened doors for theories of continental movement during this vast amount of time.

In 1912, Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of Continental Drift, which suggested that the continents were joined together at a certain time in the past and formed a single landmass known as Pangaea. In accordance with this theory, the shapes of continents and matching coastline geology between some continents indicated they were once attached together.

The super-continent Pangea during the Permian period (300 - 250 million years ago). Credit: NAU Geology/Ron Blakey
The super-continent Pangea during the Permian period (300 – 250 million years ago). Credit: NAU Geology/Ron Blakey

Research into the ocean floor also led directly to the theory of Plate Tectonics, which provided the mechanism for Continental Drift. Geophysical evidence suggested lateral motion of continents and that oceanic crust is younger than continental crust. This geophysical evidence also spurred the hypothesis of paleomagnetism, the record of the orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded in magnetic minerals.

Then there was the development of seismology, the study of earthquakes and the propagation of elastic waves through the Earth or through other planet-like bodies, in the early 20th century. By measuring the time of travel of refracted and reflected seismic waves, scientists were able to gradually infer how the Earth was layered and what lay deeper at its core.

For example, in 1910, Harry Fielding Ried put forward the “elastic rebound theory”, based on his studies of the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake. This theory, which stated that earthquakes occur when accumulated energy is released along a fault line, was the first scientific explanation for why earthquakes happen, and remains the foundation for modern tectonic studies.

Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Then in 1926, English scientist Harold Jeffreys claimed that below the crust, the core of the Earth is liquid, based on his study of earthquake waves. And then in 1937, Danish seismologist Inge Lehmann went a step further and determined that within the earth’s liquid outer core, there is a solid inner core.

By the latter half of the 20th century, scientists developed a comprehensive theory of the Earth’s structure and dynamics had formed. As the century played out, perspectives shifted to a more integrative approach, where geology and Earth sciences began to include the study of the Earth’s internal structure, atmosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere into one.

This was assisted by the development of space flight, which allowed for Earth’s atmosphere to be studied in detail, as well as photographs taken of Earth from space. In 1972, the Landsat Program, a series of satellite missions jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, began supplying satellite images that provided geologically detailed maps, and have been used to predict natural disasters and plate shifts.

Earth’s Layers:

The Earth can be divided into one of two ways – mechanically or chemically. Mechanically – or rheologically, meaning the study of liquid states – it can be divided into the lithosphere, asthenosphere, mesospheric mantle, outer core, and the inner core. But chemically, which is the more popular of the two, it can be divided into the crust, the mantle (which can be subdivided into the upper and lower mantle), and the core – which can also be subdivided into the outer core, and inner core.

The inner core is solid, the outer core is liquid, and the mantle is solid/plastic. This is due to the relative melting points of the different layers (nickel–iron core, silicate crust and mantle) and the increase in temperature and pressure as depth increases. At the surface, the nickel-iron alloys and silicates are cool enough to be solid. In the upper mantle, the silicates are generally solid but localized regions of melt exist, leading to limited viscosity.

In contrast, the lower mantle is under tremendous pressure and therefore has a lower viscosity than the upper mantle. The metallic nickel–iron outer core is liquid because of the high temperature. However, the intense pressure, which increases towards the inner core, dramatically changes the melting point of the nickel–iron, making it solid.

The differentiation between these layers is due to processes that took place during the early stages of Earth’s formation (ca. 4.5 billion years ago). At this time, melting would have caused denser substances to sink toward the center while less-dense materials would have migrated to the crust. The core is thus believed to largely be composed of iron, along with nickel and some lighter elements, whereas less dense elements migrated to the surface along with silicate rock.

Earth’s Crust:

The crust is the outermost layer of the planet, the cooled and hardened part of the Earth that ranges in depth from approximately 5-70 km (~3-44 miles). This layer makes up only 1% of the entire volume of the Earth, though it makes up the entire surface (the continents and the ocean floor).

The Earth's layers (strata) shown to scale. Credit:
The Earth’s layers (strata) shown to scale. Credit:

The thinner parts are the oceanic crust, which underlies the ocean basins at a depth of 5-10 km (~3-6 miles), while the thicker crust is the continental crust. Whereas the oceanic crust is composed of dense material such as iron magnesium silicate igneous rocks (like basalt), the continental crust is less dense and composed of sodium potassium aluminum silicate rocks, like granite.

The uppermost section of the mantle (see below), together with the crust, constitutes the lithosphere – an irregular layer with a maximum thickness of perhaps 200 km (120 mi). Many rocks now making up Earth’s crust formed less than 100 million (1×108) years ago. However, the oldest known mineral grains are 4.4 billion (4.4×109) years old, indicating that Earth has had a solid crust for at least that long.

Upper Mantle:

The mantle, which makes up about 84% of Earth’s volume, is predominantly solid, but behaves as a very viscous fluid in geological time. The upper mantle, which starts at the “Mohorovicic Discontinuity” (aka. the “Moho” – the base of the crust) extends from a depth of 7 to 35 km (4.3 to 21.7 mi) downwards to a depth of 410 km (250 mi). The uppermost mantle and the overlying crust form the lithosphere, which is relatively rigid at the top but becomes noticeably more plastic beneath.

Compared to other strata, much is known about the upper mantle, thanks to seismic studies and direct investigations using mineralogical and geological surveys. Movement in the mantle (i.e. convection) is expressed at the surface through the motions of tectonic plates. Driven by heat from deeper in the interior, this process is responsible for Continental Drift, earthquakes, the formation of mountain chains, and a number of other geological processes.

Computer simulation of the Earth's field in a period of normal polarity between reversals.[1] The lines represent magnetic field lines, blue when the field points towards the center and yellow when away. The rotation axis of the Earth is centered and vertical. The dense clusters of lines are within the Earth's core
Computer simulation of the Earth’s field in a period of normal polarity between reversals.  Credit:
The mantle is also chemically distinct from the crust, in addition to being different in terms of rock types and seismic characteristics. This is due in large part to the fact that the crust is made up of solidified products derived from the mantle, where the mantle material is partially melted and viscous. This causes incompatible elements to separate from the mantle, with less dense material floating upward and solidifying at the surface.

The crystallized melt products near the surface, upon which we live, are typically known to have a lower magnesium to iron ratio and a higher proportion of silicon and aluminum. These changes in mineralogy may influence mantle convection, as they result in density changes and as they may absorb or release latent heat as well.

In the upper mantle, temperatures range between 500 to 900 °C (932 to 1,652 °F). Between the upper and lower mantle, there is also what is known as the transition zone, which ranges in depth from 410-660 km (250-410 miles).

Lower Mantle:

The lower mantle lies between 660-2,891 km (410-1,796 miles) in depth. Temperatures in this region of the planet can reach over 4,000 °C (7,230 °F) at the boundary with the core, vastly exceeding the melting points of mantle rocks. However, due to the enormous pressure exerted on the mantle, viscosity and melting are very limited compared to the upper mantle. Very little is known about the lower mantle apart from that it appears to be relatively seismically homogeneous.

The internal structure of Earth. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong
The internal structure of Earth. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong

Outer Core:

The outer core, which has been confirmed to be liquid (based on seismic investigations), is 2300 km thick, extending to a radius of ~3,400 km. In this region, the density is estimated to be much higher than the mantle or crust, ranging between 9,900 and 12,200 kg/m3. The outer core is believed to be composed of 80% iron, along with nickel and some other lighter elements.

Denser elements, like lead and uranium, are either too rare to be significant or tend to bind to lighter elements and thus remain in the crust. The outer core is not under enough pressure to be solid, so it is liquid even though it has a composition similar to that of the inner core. The temperature of the outer core ranges from 4,300 K (4,030 °C; 7,280 °F) in the outer regions to 6,000 K (5,730 °C; 10,340 °F) closest to the inner core.

Because of its high temperature, the outer core exists in a low viscosity fluid-state that undergoes turbulent convection and rotates faster than the rest of the planet. This causes eddy currents to form in the fluid core, which in turn creates a dynamo effect that is believed to influence Earth’s magnetic field. The average magnetic field strength in Earth’s outer core is estimated to be 25 Gauss (2.5 mT), which is 50 times the strength of the magnetic field measured on Earth’s surface.

Inner Core:

Like the outer core, the inner core is composed primarily of iron and nickel and has a radius of ~1,220 km. Density in the core ranges between 12,600-13,000 kg/m³, which suggests that there must also be a great deal of heavy elements there as well – such as gold, platinum, palladium, silver and tungsten.

Artist’s illustration of Earht's core via Huff Post Science
Artist’s illustration of Earth’s core, inner core, and inner-inner core. Credit: Huff Post Science

The temperature of the inner core is estimated to be about 5,700 K (~5,400 °C; 9,800 °F). The only reason why iron and other heavy metals can be solid at such high temperatures is because their melting temperatures dramatically increase at the pressures present there, which ranges from about 330 to 360 gigapascals.

Because the inner core is not rigidly connected to the Earth’s solid mantle, the possibility that it rotates slightly faster or slower than the rest of Earth has long been considered. By observing changes in seismic waves as they passed through the core over the course of many decades, scientists estimate that the inner core rotates at a rate of one degree faster than the surface. More recent geophysical estimates place the rate of rotation between 0.3 to 0.5 degrees per year relative to the surface.

Recent discoveries also suggest that the solid inner core itself is composed of layers, separated by a transition zone about 250 to 400 km thick. This new view of the inner core, which contains an inner-inner core, posits that the innermost layer of the core measures 1,180 km (733 miles) in diameter, making it less than half the size of the inner core. It has been further speculated that while the core is composed of iron, it may be in a different crystalline structure that the rest of the inner core.

What’s more, recent studies have led geologists to conjecture that the dynamics of deep interior is driving the Earth’s inner core to expand at the rate of about 1 millimeter a year. This occurs mostly because the inner core cannot dissolve the same amount of light elements as the outer core.

The freezing of liquid iron into crystalline form at the inner core boundary produces residual liquid that contains more light elements than the overlying liquid. This in turn is believed to cause the liquid elements to become buoyant, helping to drive convection in the outer core. This growth is therefore likely to play an important role in the generation of Earth’s magnetic field by dynamo action in the liquid outer core. It also means that the Earth’s inner core, and the processes that drive it, are far more complex than previously thought!

Yes indeed, the Earth is a strange and mysteries place, titanic in scale as well as the amount of heat and energy that went into making it many billions of years ago. And like all bodies in our universe, the Earth is not a finished product, but a dynamic entity that is subject to constant change. And what we know about our world is still subject to theory and guesswork, given that we can’t examine its interior up close.

As the Earth’s tectonic plates continue to drift and collide, its interior continues to undergo convection, and its core continues to grow, who knows what it will look like eons from now? After all, the Earth was here long before we were, and will likely continue to be long after we are gone.

We have written many articles about Earth for Universe Today. Here’s are some Interesting Facts about Earth, and here’s one about the Earth’s inner inner core, and another about how minerals stop transferring heat at the core.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

Were Lunar Volcanoes Active When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth?

The Moon’s a very dusty museum where the exhibits haven’t changed much over the last 4 billion years. Or so we thought. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has provided researchers strong evidence the Moon’s volcanic activity slowed gradually instead of stopping abruptly a billion years ago.

Some volcanic deposits are estimated to be 100 million years old, meaning the moon was spouting lava when dinosaurs of the Cretaceous era were busy swatting giant dragonflies. There are even hints of 50-million-year-old volcanism, practically yesterday by lunar standards.

Ina Caldera sits atop a low, broad volcanic dome or shield volcano, where lavas once oozed from the moon’s crust. The darker patches in the photo are blobs of older lunar crust. As in the photo of Maskelyne, they form a series of low mounds higher than the younger, jumbled terrain around them. Credit: NASA
Ina Caldera sits atop a low, broad volcanic dome or shield volcano, where lavas once oozed from the moon’s crust. The darker patches in the photo are blobs of older lunar crust. As in the photo of Maskelyne, they form a series of low mounds higher than the younger, jumbled terrain around them. Credit: NASA

The deposits are scattered across the Moon’s dark volcanic plains (lunar “seas”) and are characterized by a mixture of smooth, rounded, shallow mounds next to patches of rough, blocky terrain. Because of this combination of textures, the researchers refer to these unusual areas as “irregular mare patches.”

Measuring less than one-third mile (1/2 km) across, almost all are too small to see from Earth with the exception of Ina Caldera, a 2-mile-long D-shaped patch where blobs of older, crater-pitted lunar crust (darker blobs) rise some 250 feet above the younger, rubbly surface like melted cheese on pizza.

Lavas on the moon were thin and runny like this flow photographed in Kilauea, Hawaii. Credit: USGS
Lavas on the moon were thin and runny like this flow photographed in Kilauea, Hawaii. Credit: USGS

Ina was thought to be a one-of-a-kind until researchers from Arizona State University in Tempe and Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster in Germany spotted 70 more patches in close-up photos taken by the LRO. The large number and the fact that the patches are scattered all over the nearside of the Moon means that volcanic activity was not only recent but widespread.

Astronomers estimate ages for features on the moon by counting crater numbers and sizes (the fewer seen, the younger the surface) and the steepness of the slopes running from the tops of the smoother domes to the rough terrain below (the steeper, the younger).

“Based on a technique that links such crater measurements to the ages of Apollo and Luna samples, three of the irregular mare patches are thought to be less than 100 million years old, and perhaps less than 50 million years old in the case of Ina,” according to the NASA press release.

Artist concept illustration of the internal structure of the moon. Credit: NOAJ
Artist concept illustration of the internal structure of the moon. Credit: NOAJ

The young mare patches stand in stark contrast to the ancient volcanic terrain surrounding them that dates from 3.5 to 1 billion years ago.

For lava to flow you need a hot mantle, the deep layer of rock beneath the crust that extends to the Moon’s metal core. And a hot mantle means a core that’s still cranking out a lot of heat.

Scientists thought the Moon had cooled off a billion or more years ago, making recent flows all but impossible. Apparently the moon’s interior remained piping hot far longer than anyone had supposed.

“The existence and age of the irregular mare patches tell us that the lunar mantle had to remain hot enough to provide magma for the small-volume eruptions that created these unusual young features,” said Sarah Braden, a recent Arizona State University graduate and the lead author of the study.

It takes two to tango. The moon’s gravity raises a pair of watery bulges in the Earth’s oceans creating the tides, while Earth's gravity stretches and compresses the moon to warm its interior. Illustration: Bob King
It takes two to tango. The moon’s gravity raises a pair of watery bulges in the Earth’s oceans creating the tides, while Earth’s gravity stretches and compresses the moon to warm its interior. Illustration: Bob King

One way to keep the Moon warm is through tidal interaction with the Earth. A recent study points out that strains caused by Earth’s gravitational tug on the Moon (nearside vs. farside) heats up its interior. Could this be the source of the relatively recent lava flows?

So the pendulum swings. Prior to 1950 it was thought that lunar craters and landforms were all produced by volcanic activity. But the size and global distribution of craters – and the volcanoes required to produce them – would be impossible on a small body like the Moon. In the 1950s and beyond, astronomers came to realize through the study of nuclear bomb tests and high-velocity impact experiments that explosive impacts from asteroids large and small were responsible for the Moon’s craters.

This latest revelation gives us a more nuanced view of how volcanism may continue to play a role in the formation of lunar features.

Mars Has Watery Insides, Just Like Earth

Researchers from the Carnegie Institution have found that water is present in surprisingly Earthlike amounts within Mars’ mantle, based on studies of meteorites that originate from the Red Planet. The findings offer insight as to how Martian water may have once made its way to the planet’s surface, as well as what may lie within other terrestrial worlds.

Earth has water on its surface (obviously) and also within its crust and mantle. The water content of Earth’s upper mantle — the layer just below the crust —  is between 50 and 300 ppm (parts per million). This number corresponds to what the research team has identified within the mantle of Mars, based on studies of two chunks of rock — called shergottites — that were blasted off Mars during an impact event 2.5 million years ago.

“We analyzed two meteorites that had very different processing histories,” said Erik Hauri, the analysis team’s lead investigator from the Carnegie Institute . “One had undergone considerable mixing with other elements during its formation, while the other had not. We analyzed the water content of the mineral apatite and found there was little difference between the two even though the chemistry of trace elements was markedly different. The results suggest that water was incorporated during the formation of Mars and that the planet was able to store water in its interior during the planet’s differentiation.”

The water stored within Mars’ mantle may have made its way to the surface through volcanic activity, the researchers suggest, creating environments that were conducive to the development of life.

Like Earth, Mars may have gotten its water from elements available in the neighborhood of the inner Solar System during its development. Although Earth has retained its surface water while that on Mars got lost or frozen, both planets appear to have about the same relative amounts tucked away inside… and this could also be the case for other rocky worlds.

“Not only does this study explain how Mars got its water, it provides a mechanism for hydrogen storage in all the terrestrial planets at the time of their formation,” said former Carnegie postdoctoral scientist Francis McCubbin, who led the study.

The team’s research is published in the July edition of the journal Geology. Read more on the Carnegie Institution for Science’s site here.

Image: The remains of what appears to be a river delta within Eberswalde crater on Mars, imaged by ESA’s Mars Express. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum).

Earth’s Layers For Kids

My son recently came back from a science day camp with one of the coolest things. It was a model of the Earth that he had created out of modeling clay. It showed the internal structure of the Earth, and because he built it, he was able to remember all of the layers of the Earth. Very cool. So here’s a good way to learn the Earth layers for kids.

To make your own, you need some modeling clay of different colors. You start by making a ball about 1.2 cm across. This represents the Earth’s inner core. Then you make a second ball about 3 cm across. This ball represents the Earth’s outer core. Then you make a third ball about 6 cm across. This ball represents the Earth’s mantle. And finally, you make some flattened pieces of clay that will be the Earth’s crust. To make it extra realistic, make some pieces blue and others green.

Take inner core and surround it with the outer core, and then surround that by the mantle. Cover the entire mantle with a thin layer of blue, and then put on some green continents on top of the blue.

If you’ve been really careful, you should be able to take a sharp knife and slice your Earth ball in half. You should be able to see the Earth’s layers inside, just like you’d see the real Earth’s layers. And you can see that the mantle is thicker underneath the Earth’s continents than it is under the oceans.

Here’s a link with more information from Purdue University so you can do the experiment yourself.

If you’re interested in teaching your children Earth science, here’s lots of information about volcanoes for kids.

We have also recorded a whole episode of Astronomy Cast just about Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

Mantle Plume

One of the mysteries of Earth science is hotspots. While most volcanoes are found at plate boundaries, where two tectonic plates are rubbing against each other, volcanic hotspots can be anywhere, even in the middle of continents. What causes volcanic hotspots? One theory is the idea of a mantle plume.

A mantle plume is kind of like what’s going on inside a lava lamp. As the light heats up the wax in a lava lamp, it rises up through the oil in large blobs. These blobs reach the top of the lamp, cool and then sink back down to be heated up again.

Inside the Earth, the core of the Earth is very hot, and heats up the surrounding mantle. Heat convection in the mantle slowly transports heat from the core up to the Earth’s surface. These rising columns of heat can come up anywhere, and not just at the plate boundaries. Geologists did fluid dynamic experiments to try and simulate mantle plumes, and they found they formed long thin conduits topped by a bulbous head.

When the top of a mantle plume reaches the base of the Earth’s lithosphere, it flattens out and melts a large area of basalt magma. This whole region can form a continental flood basalt, which only lasts for a few million years. Or it can maintain a continuous stream of magma to a fixed location; this is a hotspot.

As the lithosphere continues to move through plate tectonics, the hotspot appears to be shifting its position over millions of years. But really the hotspot is remaining in a fixed location, and the Earth’s plates are shifting above it.

Two of the most famous places that might have mantle plumes underneath them are the Hawaiian Islands and Iceland.

We have written many articles about volcanoes and the interior of the Earth for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the difference between magma and lava, and here’s an article about magma chambers.

Here’s a great resource on mantle plumes, and here’s another.

We have recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast about volcanoes around the Solar System. Listen to it here: Episode 141: Volcanoes, Hot and Cold.