Most of what we know about the interior of the Earth comes from the study of seismic waves from earthquakes. Seismic waves from large earthquakes pass throughout the Earth.
These waves contain vital information about the internal structure of the Earth. As seismic waves pass through the Earth, they are refracted, or bent, like rays of light bend when they pass though a glass prism.
Because the speed of the seismic waves depends on density, we can use the travel-time of seismic waves to map change in density with depth, and show that the Earth is composed of several layers.
This brittle outermost layer varies in thickness from about 25 to 70 km under continents, and from about 5 to 10 km under the oceans. Continental crust is quite complex in structure and is made from many different kinds of rocks.
Below the crust lies the dense mantle, extending to a depth of 2890 km. It consists of dense silicate rocks. Both P- and S-waves from earthquakes travel through the mantle, demonstrating that it is solid.
However, there is separate evidence that parts of the mantle behaves as a fluid over very long geological times scales, with rocks flowing slowly in giant convection cells.
At a depth of about 2900 km is the boundary between the mantle and the Earth's core. The core is composed of iron and we know that it exists because it refracts seismic waves creating a 'shadow zone' at distances between 103º and 143º (see above diagram).
We also know that the outer part of the core is liquid, because S-waves do not pass through it.
The following interactive seismic waves viewer works with any HTML5 enabled web browser and allows users to follow seismic waves as they propogate through a draggable, spinnable cutaway globe. Seismic Waves
Students use a model based on wire helical coils ('slinkies') to look at how an earthquake generates P-waves and S-waves.
A discussion of how physics can be used to probe Earth’s structure
Pupils are pushed around to demonstrate the properties of seismic waves.
The process of ground being subjected to a growing force until it snaps or breaks is explained in a theory called the elastic rebound theory.
Tectonic plates can move relative to each in different ways. This movement gives rise to different types of plate boundaries with different properties and characteristic earthquakes.
Studying the signals from distant earthquakes has allowed scientists to determine the internal structure of the earth.
Earthquakes do not occur randomly on the Earth. The pattern of earthquake locations can be explained by assuming the Earth's surface is made up from rigid plates that are in motion relative to each other.