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Earth's Crust Help

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Aug 30, 2011

Introduction to the Earth's Crust

The Earth’s crust is the hard, outermost covering of the Earth. This is the layer exposed to weathering like wind, rain, freezing snow, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, meteor impacts, volcano eruptions, and everything in between. It has all the wrinkles, scars, colorations, and shapes that make it interesting. Just as people are different, with their own ideas and histories depending on their experiences, so the Earth has different personalities. Lush and green in the tropics to dry and inhospitable in the deep Sahara to fields of frozen ice pack in the Arctic, the Earth’s crust has many faces.

Continental Crust

The landmass of the crust is thin compared to the rest of the Earth’s layers. It makes up only about 1% of the Earth’s total mass. The continental crust can be as much as 70 km thick. The land crust with mountain ranges and high peaks is thicker in places than the crust found under the oceans and seas, but the ocean’s crust, about 7 km thick, is denser.

The continents are the chunks of land that are above the level of ocean basins, the deepest levels of land within the crust. Continents are broken up into six major landmasses: Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Eurasia, North America, and South America. This hard continental crust forms about 29% of the Earth’s surface and 3% of the Earth’s total volume.

Besides dry land, continents include submerged continental shelves that extend into the ocean, like the crust framing the edge of a pie. The continental shelf provides a base for the deposit of sand, mud, clay, shells, and minerals washed down from the landmass.

A continental shelf is the thinner, extended edges of a continental landmass that are found below sea level.

The continental shelf can extend beyond the shoreline from 10 to 220 miles (16–320 km) depending on location. The water above a continental shelf is fairly shallow, between 200 and 600 feet deep (60–180 m), compared to the greater depths at the slope and below. There is a drop off, called the continental slope, that slips away suddenly to the ocean floor. Here, the water reaches depths of up to 3 miles (5 km) to reach the average level of the seafloor. Figure 1-7 shows the steady thinning of the continental landmass to the different depths of the ocean floor.

Planet Earth Continental Crust

Fig. 1-7. A continental shelf extends the landmass before sloping to the ocean floor.

A “land” or “dry” continent has more variety than its undersea brother, the oceanic crust, because of weathering and environmental conditions. The continental crust is thicker, especially under mountains, but less dense than the “wet crust” found under the oceans. Commonly, the continental crust is around 30 km thick, but can be up to 50–80 km thick from the top of a mountain.

The continental crust is made up of three main types of rock. These are: sedimentary , igneous , and metamorphic rock. We will learn more about these rock types in later chapters.

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