Where even rock is weaker - Between 90 and 110 kilometers below ground, Earth’s hard shell – the lithosphere – meets the more pliable asthenosphere. The boundary between the two layers is no more than 11 kilometers thick, according to a new study.
Earth’s cool, rigid upper layer, known as the lithosphere, rides on top of its warmer, more pliable neighbor, the asthenosphere, as a series of massive plates. Plates continuously shift and break, triggering earthquakes, sparking volcanic eruptions, sculpting mountains and carving trenches under the sea.
But what, exactly, divides the lithosphere and the asthenosphere? In the latest issue of Nature, a trio of geophysicists from Brown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology publish research that sheds new light on the nature of the boundary between these rocky regions.
Lead author Catherine Rychert, a 26-year-old graduate student in Brown’s Department of Geological Sciences, found a sharp dividing line between the lithosphere and the asthenosphere, according to data culled from seismic sensors sprinkled across the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. Rychert and colleagues discovered that sound waves recorded by the sensors slow considerably about 90 to 110 kilometers below ground – a sign that the rock is getting weaker and that the lithosphere is giving way to the asthenosphere. Within in a distance of a mere 11 kilometers – roughly 7 miles or less – the transition is complete.
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