Continental crust

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Geology and geophysics

The thickness of the Earth's crust (km).
The thickness of the Earth's crust (km).

The continental crust is the layer of granitic, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks which form the continents and the areas of shallow seabed close to their shores, known as continental shelves. It is less dense than the material of the Earth's mantle and thus "floats" on top of it. Continental crust is also less dense than oceanic crust, though it is considerably thicker; mostly 35 to 40 km versus the average oceanic thickness of around 7-10 km. About 40% of the Earth's surface is now underlain by continental crust.

As a consequence of the density difference, when active margins of continental crust meet oceanic crust in subduction zones, the oceanic crust is typically subducted back into the mantle. Because of its relative low density, continental crust is only rarely subducted or re-cycled back into the mantle (for instance, where continental crustal blocks collide and overthicken, causing deep melting). For this reason the oldest rocks on Earth are within the cratons or cores of the continents, rather than in repeatedly recycled oceanic crust; the oldest continental rock is the Acasta Gneiss at 4.01 Ga, while the oldest oceanic crust is of Jurassic age.

The height of mountain ranges is usually related to the thickness of crust. This results from the isostasy associated with orogeny (mountain formation). The crust is thickened by the compressive forces related to subduction or continental collision. The buoyancy of the crust forces it upwards, the forces of the collisional stress balanced by gravity and erosion. This forms a keel or mountain root beneath the mountain range, which is where the thickest crust is found.

The thinnest continental crust is found in rift zones, where the crust is thinned by detachment faulting and eventually severed, replaced by oceanic crust. The edges of continental fragments formed this way (both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, for example) are termed passive margins.

It is a matter of debate whether the amount of continental crust has been increasing, decreasing, or remaining constant over geological time. One model indicates that at prior to 3.7 Bya continental crust constituted less than 10% of the present amount. By 3.0 Bya the amount was about 25% and following a period of rapid crustal evolution it was about 60% of the current amount by 2.6 Bya (Taylor and McLennan, 1995). The growth of continental crust appears to have occurred in spurts of increased activity corresponding to five episodes of increased production through geologic time (see graphic at Butler).

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