How Do Scientists Know the Structure of the Earth's Interior?

By Carla Jean McKinney; Updated April 25, 2017
An image of the Earth.

Although the interior of the Earth is not directly visible, scientists can use a variety of methods to create a profile of the Earth's crust, mantle and core. Tracking seismic waves, studying the behavior of the Earth and other planets in space, and analyzing rock and mineral samples are key strategies for exploring the composition and behavior of the Earth's deep core.

The Earth's Interior

Below the surface, the Earth's interior consists of three main parts: the crust, the mantle and the core. The crust, which is most accessible for study, includes the Earth's surface and the tectonic plates, which are in constant motion, creating earthquakes and new geological features. Below the crust lies the mantle, composed of rocks that are so hot they liquefy while moving toward the crust, producing earthquakes and other seismic activity. At the center of the planet, the core consists of two parts, a liquid outer core and a hot, solid inner core composed primarily of iron.

Seismic Waves

Much information about the Earth's interior comes from the study of earthquake activity. Sophisticated instruments placed deep in the earth track seismic waves, which vary in speed and shape in different parts of the Earth's mantle and core. For example, the outer core transmits few shear waves, a type of seismic movement, suggesting that it is liquid rather than solid. Recent advances in seismic mapping of the Earth allows researchers to create computer generated 3D images of the Earth's interior. Armed with better data, scientists can create new, more accurate theories.

The Earth In Space

Over 300 years ago, Sir Isaac Newton calculated the Earth's core density by observing the movement of planets and the force of gravity. His observations remain largely correct today, and monitoring of the Earth in space, as well as the behavior of the moon and planets, continues to provide information about the relative density of the Earth's core and its composition. The study of neighboring planets such as Mars also provides clues about the nature of Earth's formation and the behavior of its deep inner parts.

Rock and Mineral Analyses

Laboratory analyses of rock and mineral samples from the Earth's crust and surface, as well as those obtained from deep probes, provide important information about the temperature and composition of the deeper layers of the Earth's interior. Lab experiments on rocks at high temperatures and pressures provide clues about the behavior of rocks and minerals in the mantle and core. Analyses of lava samples and volcanic rock reveal information about the composition and behavior of various types of rock, liquid or solid, at various depths in the Earth's interior.

About the Author

Carla Jean McKinney has been writing professionally since 1989. She is the author of three nonfiction books and numerous published short works, as well as articles on natural sciences and the environment. Also a photographer, McKinney earned her Master of Arts at the University of Arizona and is a graduate of the Sessions School of Design.