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The lithosphere (pronounced /ˈlɪθəsfɪər/, from the Greek λίθος [lithos] for "rocky" + σφαῖρα [sphaira] for "sphere") is the rigid[1] outermost shell of a rocky planet. It comprises the crust and the portion of the upper mantle that behaves elastically on time scales of thousands of years or greater.


Earth's lithosphere

In the Earth, the lithosphere includes the crust and the uppermost mantle, which constitute the hard and rigid outer layer of the Earth. The lithosphere is underlain by the asthenosphere, the weaker, hotter, and deeper part of the upper mantle. The boundary between the lithosphere and the underlying asthenosphere is defined by a difference in response to stress: the lithosphere remains rigid for very long periods of geologic time in which it deforms elastically and through brittle failure, while the asthenosphere deforms viscously and accommodates strain through plastic deformation. The lithosphere is broken into tectonic plates. The uppermost part of the lithosphere that chemically reacts to the atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere through the soil forming process is called the pedosphere.

The concept of the lithosphere as Earth’s strong outer layer was developed by Joseph Barrell, who wrote a series of papers introducing the concept.[2][3][4] The concept was based on the presence of significant gravity anomalies over continental crust, from which he inferred that there must exist a strong upper layer (which he called the lithosphere) above a weaker layer which could flow (which he called the asthenosphere). These ideas were expanded by Daly (1940)[5], and have been broadly accepted by geologists and geophysicists. Although these ideas about lithosphere and asthenosphere were developed long before plate tectonic theory was articulated in the 1960s, the concepts that a strong lithosphere exists and that this rests on a weak asthenosphere are essential to that theory.

The lithosphere provides a conductive lid atop the convecting mantle; as such, it affects heat transport through the Earth.

There are two types of lithosphere:

  • Oceanic lithosphere, which is associated with Oceanic crust and exists in the ocean basins
  • Continental lithosphere, which is associated with Continental crust

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