The lithosphere is the solid, outer part of the Earth. The lithosphere includes the brittle upper portion of the mantle and the crust, the outermost layers of Earth’s structure. below.
The lithosphere is the most rigid of Earth’s layers. Although the rocks of the lithosphere are still considered elastic, they are not viscous. The asthenosphere is viscous, and the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary (LAB) is the point where geologists and rheologists—scientists who study the flow of matter—mark the difference in ductility between the two layers of the upper mantle. Ductility measures a solid material’s ability to deform or stretch under stress. The lithosphere is far less ductile than the asthenosphere. The elasticity and ductility of the lithosphere depends on temperature, stress, and the curvature of the Earth itself.
The lithosphere is also the coolest of Earth’s layers. In fact, some definitions of the lithosphere stress its ability to conduct heat associated with the convection taking place in the plastic mantle below the lithosphere.
The most well-known feature associated with Earth’s lithosphere is tectonic activity. Tectonic activity describes the interaction of the huge slabs of lithosphere called tectonic plates.
The lithosphere is divided into 15 major tectonic plates: the North American, Caribbean, South American, Scotia, Antarctic, Eurasian, Arabian, African, Indian, Philippine, Australian, Pacific, Juan de Fuca, Cocos, and Nazca.
How the Lithosphere Interacts with Other Spheres
The cool, brittle lithosphere is just one of five great “spheres” that shape the environment of Earth. The other spheres are the biosphere (Earth’s living things); the cryosphere (Earth’s frozen regions, including both ice and frozen soil); the hydrosphere (Earth’s liquid water); and the atmosphere (the air surrounding our planet). These spheres interact to influence such diverse elements as ocean salinity, biodiversity, and landscape.
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