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What On Earth?

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Beyond the outer core lies the mantle, a 1,mile-thick layer of viscous molten rock on which Earth's outermost layer, the crust, rests. On land, the continental crust is an average of 19 miles thick, but the oceanic crust that forms the seafloor is thinner—about three miles thick—and denser. Like Venus and Mars, Earth has mountains, valleys, and volcanoes.

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But unlike its rocky siblings, almost 70 percent of Earth's surface is covered in oceans of liquid water that average 2. These bodies of water contain 97 percent of Earth's volcanoes and the mid-ocean ridge , a massive mountain range more than 40, miles long. Earth's crust and upper mantle are divided into massive plates that grind against each other in slow motion. As these plates collide, tear apart, or slide past each other, they give rise to our very active geology.

Earthquakes rumble as these plates snag and slip past each other. Many volcanoes form as seafloor crust smashes into and slides beneath continental crust. When plates of continental crust collide, mountain ranges such as the Himalaya are pushed toward the skies. Earth's atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, and one percent other gases such as carbon dioxide, water vapor, and argon. Much like a greenhouse, this blanket of gases absorbs and retains heat. On average, Earth's surface temperature is about 57 degrees Fahrenheit; without our atmosphere, it'd be zero degrees.

What is the highest point on Earth as measured from Earth's center?

In the last two centuries, humans have added enough greenhouse gases to the atmosphere to raise Earth's average temperature by 1. This extra heat has altered Earth's weather patterns in many ways.

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The atmosphere not only nourishes life on Earth, but it also protects it: It's thick enough that many meteorites burn up before impact from friction, and its gases—such as ozone—block DNA-damaging ultraviolet light from reaching the surface. But for all that our atmosphere does, it's surprisingly thin. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the expressed written permission of the American Geosciences Institute is expressly prohibited.

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