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Explainer: Earth — layer by layer

Mountain ranges tower to the sky. Oceans plummet to impossible depths. Earth’s surface is an amazing place to behold. Yet even the deepest canyon is but a tiny scratch on the planet. To really understand Earth, you need to travel 6,400 kilometers (3,977 miles) beneath our feet.

A cut-away of Earth’s layers reveals how thin the crust is when compared to the lower layers.

Starting at the center, Earth is composed of four distinct layers. They are, from deepest to shallowest, the inner core, the outer core, the mantle and the crust. Except for the crust, no one has ever explored these layers in person. In fact, the deepest humans have ever drilled is just over 12 kilometers (7.6 miles). And even that took 20 years!

Still, scientists know a great deal about Earth’s inner structure. They’ve plumbed it by studying how earthquake waves travel through the planet. The speed and behavior of these waves change as they encounter layers of different densities. Scientists — including Isaac Newton, three centuries ago — have also learned about the core and mantle from calculations of Earth’s total density, gravitational pull and magnetic field.

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