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Continental Crust

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Last updated date: 16th Jul 2024
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What is Continental Crust?

The continental crust is the outermost layer of the earth’s lithosphere. It forms the landmasses, that is, the continental shelves and the continents on Earth. The continental crust is developed near the subduction zones at the boundaries between the oceanic and continental tectonic plates. The crust forms almost all the land surface of the Earth. 

Oceanic and Continental Crust

The composition of the continental crust is mostly granitic in nature, and it is slightly lighter than the oceanic crust. The continental crust thickness comes to about 40 kilometers, that is, 25 miles roughly. However, the oceanic crust has a thickness of 6 kilometers approximately. There is a difference in the composition of continental crust and oceanic crust. Unlike the basaltic oceanic crust, it is rich in granite. The oceanic crust is rich in magnesium and iron. The density of Earth’s continental crust is 2.7 grams per cubic centimeter, whereas, the density of the oceanic crust is roughly 2.9 -3 grams per cubic centimeters. 

The variations in the density of lithospheric rock have an evident impact on the elevations of oceanic and continental crust. Those parts of the continental crust that have a lower density floats quite high in the mantle due to their greater buoyancy. The average depth of the oceanic crust is 3790 meters and the average elevation of the continental crust above the sea level is 840 meters. The difference between the elevation and densities of oceanic crust vs continental crust has led to the formation of two main levels of Earth’s surface. 

Continental Crust: Formation

After understanding the continental crust definition, let us now go through the formation of continental crust.  The continental crust is mainly formed near the subduction zones. The oceanic lithosphere is converted into the mantle of the earth, at the sites of convergent boundaries between the oceanic and continental crust. The top layers of the oceanic plates are subducted under the margins of the continental crust. These scraped-off rocks from the oceanic crust add to the lateral growth of the continental crust. The continental margins are mostly outlined as volcanic arcs, and these volcanoes make an addition to the continental crust. 

Island Arc: There are volcanoes aligned along the subduction zones located at the ocean basins. At these sites, the oceanic plates are piled up one above the other. These volcanic arcs along the oceanic subduction zones are known as island arcs. The composition of these island arcs comprises rocky materials ranging from the continental crust and oceanic crust. The density and thickness of the materials constituting the island arcs are likely to vary between that of the continental and oceanic crust. Apparently, the collection of the island arcs led to the formation of the first continent. 

The age of continental crust, rather than the age of the oldest continental crust is about 260 million years. Also, the most ancient continental rock found on this planet happens to be 4 billion years old. The youngest of all ocean crusts is most likely to be found at the mid-ocean ridges, that is, at the sea floors at the sea centers. When the oceanic tectonic plates split apart, the molten magma from beneath oozes out to fill in the void created by the movement of the tectonic plates. 

The continental crust is said to have been formed by re-elimination. It is a kind of accretionary process. Mostly, accretion is a process, in which small solid rock materials agglomerate to constitute large objects, such as the planets. Initially, the solid particles coming together are microscopic in nature and there is a disc of gas, as well. The total mass of the microscopic particles happens to be around 1 percent of the mass of the gas disc. This process of accretion is quite fast and efficacious. 

When the oceanic tectonic plate begins to subduct under the continental tectonic plate, it starts to pull along magma, sediments from the ocean floor, and bigger rocky materials. There is a steady increase in the pressure and temperature with an increase in the oceanic depth. This subsequently leads to the melting of the rocky materials. As the rocks melt, the denser particles sink towards the center and move downward within the descending plates. The less-dense material, that is rich in silica, makes up the granulites and sticks to the continental plates’ bottom. These silica-rich granulites add to the mass of the continental crust.

Continental crust and oceanic crust are two of the most basic areas that are to be understood for the study of the movement of tectonic plates and the consequent phenomena. The continental crust supports the existence of life on the land. The continental crust lies just above the sea level with certain convergent sites with the oceanic crust. The definition, formation of continental crust, and comparison between oceanic vs continental crust are discussed above. Hence, a detailed study of the continental crust facilitates the research on the formation of various landmasses and phenomena like earthquakes and tsunamis.

FAQs on Continental Crust

1. What is Meant by Continental Crust?

Ans: The term continental crust refers to the relatively thicker part of the earth’s crust constituting the landmasses. It is the outermost layer of the lithosphere that makes up the continents as well as the continental shelves. The oldest rocks of the continental crust found to date, are 4 billion years old. However, the oldest continental crust is 260 million years.

2. What Is the Difference Between Oceanic Crust and Continental Crust?

Ans: The oceanic crust has a different composition, density, and thickness than the continental crust. The oceanic crust is about 6 kilometers thick whereas the continental crust is about 40 kilometers thick. In other words, the thickness of the oceanic crust is roughly 4 miles and that of the continental crust is about 25 miles, approximately. The oceanic crust is composed of rocky materials that are rich in magnesium and iron, hence it is called basaltic in nature. Whereas the continental crust is composed of materials rich in granite. There is a slight difference in the density of the oceanic crust and continental crust. It is 2.7 grams per cubic centimeters for the continental crust and 2.9 grams per cubic centimeters for the oceanic crust.

3. Where is the Youngest Continental Crust Found?

Ans: The youngest continental crust can be found at the spreading zones in the seafloor and at the mid-ocean ridges.