6 Fascinating Facts About the Earth's Mantle

Internal structure of the Earth includes the crust, mantle, and core

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The mantle is the thick layer of hot, solid rock between the Earth's crust and the molten iron core. It makes up the bulk of the Earth, accounting for two-thirds of the planet's mass. The mantle starts about 30 kilometers down and is about 2,900 kilometers thick.

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Minerals Found in the Mantle

Geological core samples ready for analysis

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Earth has the same recipe of elements as the Sun and the other planets (ignoring hydrogen and helium, which have escaped Earth's gravity). Subtracting the iron in the core, we can calculate that the mantle is a mix of magnesium, silicon, iron, and oxygen that roughly matches the composition of garnet.

But exactly what mix of minerals is present at a given depth is an intricate question that is not firmly settled. It helps that we have samples from the mantle, chunks of rock carried up in certain volcanic eruptions, from depths like 300 kilometers and beyond. These show that the uppermost part of the mantle consists of the rock types peridotite and eclogite. Still, the most exciting thing we get from the mantle is diamonds.

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Activity in the Mantle

A world map of tectonic plates and activity

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The top part of the mantle is slowly stirred by the plate motions occurring above it. This is caused by two types of activity. First, there is the downward motion of subducting plates which slide under one another. Second, there is the upward motion of mantle rock that occurs when two tectonic plates separate and spread apart. All this action does not mix the upper mantle thoroughly, however, and geochemists think of the upper mantle as a rocky version of marble cake.

The world's patterns of volcanism reflect the action of plate tectonics, except in a few areas of the planet called hotspots. Hotspots may be a clue to the rise and fall of material much deeper in the mantle, possibly from its very bottom. Or they may not. There is a vigorous scientific discussion about hotspots these days.

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Exploring the Mantle with Earthquake Waves

A seismometer registers shocks from an earthquake in pink

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Our most powerful technique for exploring the mantle is monitoring seismic waves from the world's earthquakes. The two different kinds of seismic wave, P waves (analogous to sound waves) and S waves (like the waves in a shaken rope), respond to the physical properties of the rocks they go through. These waves reflect off some types of surfaces and refract (bend) when they strike other types of surfaces. We use these effects to map the Earth's insides.

Our tools are good enough to treat the Earth's mantle the way doctors make ultrasound pictures of their patients. After a century of collecting earthquakes, we're able to make some impressive maps of the mantle.

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Modeling the Mantle in the Lab

A specimen of olivine rock from the upper mantle admixed with pyroxene transported in a basalt flow
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Minerals and rocks change under high pressure. For instance, the common mantle mineral olivine changes to different crystal forms at depths around 410 kilometers, and again at 660 kilometers.

We study the behavior of minerals under mantle conditions with two methods: computer models based on the equations of mineral physics, and laboratory experiments. Thus, modern mantle studies are conducted by seismologists, computer programmers, and lab researchers who can now reproduce conditions anywhere in the mantle with high-pressure laboratory equipment like the diamond-anvil cell.

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The Mantle's Layers and Internal Boundaries

Labeled layers of the Earth's Interior
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A century of research has helped us fill some of the blanks in the mantle. It has three main layers. The upper mantle extends from the base of the crust (the Moho) down to 660 kilometers depth. The transition zone is located between 410 and 660 kilometers, at which depths major physical changes occur to minerals.

The lower mantle extends from 660 kilometers down to about 2,700 kilometers. At this point, seismic waves are affected so strongly that most researchers believe the rocks beneath are different in their chemistry, not just in their crystallography. This controversial layer at the bottom of the mantle, about 200 kilometers thick, has the odd name "D-double-prime." 

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Why Earth's Mantle Is Special

Smoking lava on the Kilauea, Hawaii shore against the Milky Way
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Because the mantle is the bulk of the Earth, its story is fundamental to geology. During Earth's birth, the mantle began as an ocean of liquid magma atop the iron core. As it solidified, elements that didn't fit into the major minerals collected as a scum on top—the crust. After that, the mantle began the slow circulation it has had for the last four billion years. The upper part of the mantle has cooled because it is stirred and hydrated by the tectonic motions of the surface plates.

At the same time, we have learned a great deal about the structure of Earth's sister planets Mercury, Venus, and Mars. Compared to them, Earth has an active, lubricated mantle that is very special thanks to water, the same ingredient that distinguishes its surface.