3.3 The Temperature of Earth’s Interior

Earth Gets Hotter the Deeper You Go

Earth’s internal temperature increases with depth. However, as shown in Figure 3.11, that rate of increase is not linear. The temperature gradient is around 15° to 30°C/km within the upper 100 km.  It then drops off dramatically through the mantle, increases more quickly at the base of the mantle, and then increases slowly through the core. The temperature is around 1000°C at the base of the crust, around 3500°C at the base of the mantle, and around 6,000°C[1] at Earth’s centre. The temperature gradient within the lithosphere (upper 100 km) is quite variable depending on the tectonic setting. Gradients are lowest in the central parts of continents, higher where plates collide, and higher still at divergent boundaries where plates move away from each other.

Temperature increase with depth within Earth. Temperature increases to the right, so the flatter the line, the steeper the temperature gradient. Our understanding of the temperature gradient comes from seismic wave information and knowledge of the melting points of Earth’s materials. [SE]

Figure 3.11 Temperature increase with depth within Earth. Temperature increases to the right, so the flatter the line, the steeper the temperature gradient. Our understanding of the temperature gradient comes from seismic wave information and knowledge of the melting points of Earth’s materials. [Steven Earle CC-BY 4.0]

 

Figure 3.12 shows a typical temperature curve for the upper 500 km of the mantle, in comparison to the melting curve for dry mantle rock. Between 100 and 250 km, the temperature curve comes very close to the melting boundary for dry mantle rock. At these depths, therefore, mantle rock is either very nearly melted or partially melted. In some situations, where extra heat is present and the temperature line crosses over the melting line, or where water is present, it may be completely molten. This region of the mantle is known as the low-velocity zone because seismic waves are slowed within rock that is near its melting point.  We also know it as the asthenosphere.  Below 250 km, the temperature stays on the left side of the melting line, meaning that the mantle is solid from 250 km all the way down to the core-mantle boundary. 

Temperature increase with depth in Earth’s upper 500 km, compared with the dry mantle rock melting curve (red dashed line). LVZ= low-velocity zone [SE]

Figure 3.12 Temperature increase with depth in Earth’s upper 500 km, compared with the dry mantle rock melting curve (red dashed line). LVZ= low-velocity zone [Steven Earle CC-BY 4.0]

Convection Helps to Move Heat Within the Earth

The fact that the temperature gradient is much less in the main part of the mantle than in the lithosphere has been interpreted to indicate that the mantle is convecting, and therefore that heat from depth is being brought toward the surface faster than it would be with only heat conduction. As we’ll see in Chapter 4, a convecting mantle is an essential feature of plate tectonics.

The convection of the mantle is a product of the transfer of heat from the core to the lower mantle. As in a pot of soup on a hot stove (Figure 3.13), the material near the heat source becomes hot and expands, making it lighter than the material above. Buoyancy causes it to rise, and cooler material flows in from the sides. The mantle convects in this way because the heat transfer from below is not perfectly even.  Keep in mind that the mantle convects even though it is solid rock because it is sufficiently plastic to flow (at rates of centimetres per year) as long as steady force is applied.

As in the soup pot example, Earth’s mantle will stop convecting once the core has cooled to the point where there is not enough heat transfer to overcome the strength of the rock. This has already happened on smaller planets like Mercury and Mars, as well as on Earth’s moon.

Convection in a pot of soup on a hot stove (left). As long as heat is being transferred from below, the liquid will convect. If the heat is turned off (right), the liquid remains hot for a while, but convection will cease. [SE]

Figure 3.13 Convection in a pot of soup on a hot stove (left). As long as heat is being transferred from below, the liquid will convect. If the heat is turned off (right), the liquid remains hot for a while, but convection will cease. [Steven Earle CC-BY 4.0]

Why is Earth Hot Inside?

The heat of Earth’s interior comes from two main sources, each contributing about 50% of the heat. One of those is the frictional heat left over from the collisions of large and small particles that created Earth in the first place, plus the subsequent frictional heat of redistribution of material within Earth by gravitational forces (e.g., sinking of iron to form the core).

The other source is radioactivity, specifically the spontaneous radioactive decay of 235U, 238U, 40K, and 232Th, which are primarily present in the mantle. As shown in Figure 3.14, the total heat produced that way has been decreasing over time (because these isotopes are getting used up), and is now roughly 25% of what it was when Earth formed. This means that Earth’s interior is slowly becoming cooler.

Production of heat within the Earth over time. [SE, after Arevalo, R, McDonough, W and Luong, M, 2009, The K/U ratio of Earth: insights into mantle composition, structure and thermal evolution, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, V 278, p. 361-369.]

Figure 3.14 Production of heat within the Earth over time. [SE, after Arevalo, R, McDonough, W and Luong, M, 2009, The K/U ratio of Earth: insights into mantle composition, structure and thermal evolution, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, V 278, p. 361-369.]


  1. Earth's Core Temperature A Hellish 6000 Degrees Celsius, A New Study Confirms, Nature World News, 26 August 2013 (http://bit.ly/1SikFZJ)

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