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Journey to the Center of the
Lawrence W. Braile, Professor
Dept. of Earth and Atmospheric
Sheryl J. Braile, Teacher
Happy Hollow School
(January 25, 2002; updated
April 9, 2004; October 15, 2011)
“But in the cause of science men are expected to suffer.” (p. 28, A Journey to
the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne, 1864)
Objectives: This virtual journey to the center of the Earth introduces the traveler to the structure, material properties and conditions within the Earth’s interior. The size and scale of the Earth and of the Earth’s internal structure are also emphasized because the journey utilizes a scale model of the depths within the Earth. Opportunities for creative writing and connections to literature are also provided through Jules Verne’s 1864 science fiction novel, A Journey to the thCenter of the Earth, and the 20 Century Fox 1959 movie adaptation (titled Journey to the
Center of the Earth) starring James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl, and Diane Baker.
Background: In the 1800’s there was considerable scientific and popular interest in what was
in the interior of the Earth. The details of the internal structure (crust, mantle, outer core, and inner core; and their composition and thicknesses; Figure 1) had not yet been discovered. And, although volcanic eruptions demonstrated that at least part of the interior of the Earth was hot enough to melt rocks, temperatures within the Earth and the existence of radioactivity were unknown. Jules Verne’s book, A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864, 272 pages; originally
published in France as Voyage au Centre de la Terre), capitalized on this interest in the Earth and
;Copyright 2002-2011. L. Braile and S. Braile. Permission granted for reproduction for non-commercial uses.
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in adventure with an exciting science fiction story that is still popular today. Verne introduces us to a dedicated, and somewhat eccentric professor, and his nephew through whom the story is told (see selected quotations below), who eventually travel into the Earth’s deep interior by entering into an opening in the crater of a volcano in Iceland.
Figure 1. Earth’s interior structure. The Earth’s crust is made up primarily of silicic (high percentage of Silicon and Oxygen) crystalline (distinct crystals of individual minerals are visible) rocks. The mantle makes up about 82% of the Earth by volume and consists of Iron- and magnesium-rich silicate rocks. The core is mostly iron, with a small percentage of nickel. The outer core is molten and the inner core is solid.
―…and my uncle a professor of philosophy, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and many other ologies.‖ (p.1, Jules Verne, 1864)
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―I loved mineralogy, I loved geology. To me there was nothing like pebbles—and if my uncle had
been in a little less of a fury, we should have been the happiest of families.‖ (p.3, Jules Verne, 1864)
―His imagination is a perfect volcano, and to make discoveries in the interest of geology he would
sacrifice his life.‖ (p. 14, Jules Verne, 1864)
Verne’s novel is science fiction. We know today that such a journey would be impossible. The temperature and pressure conditions within the Earth are so extreme that humans could not survive below a few kilometers depth within the 6371 km radius Earth. Furthermore, we know of no significant openings that would provide access to the deep interior of the planet, and caves or cavities at great depth are nearly impossible based on our knowledge of temperature and pressure within the Earth and the properties of Earth materials. However, Verne’s story is an interesting one and it is the inspiration (along with the desire to provide materials for learning about the Earth’s interior) for this Earth science educational activity.
By the late 1800’s, observations of temperature in mines and drill holes had demonstrated that temperature within the Earth increased with depth, and thus it is possible that the Earth’s interior
is very hot. Seismographic recordings in the early 1900’s were used to identify the Earth’s thin (about 5 – 75 km thick) crust (in 1909) and the existence of the core (in 1906). In 1936, Danish seismologist Inge Lehman presented evidence for the existence of a solid inner core. Since then, seismology and other geological and geophysical studies have provided considerably more detailed information about the structure, composition and conditions of the interior of the Earth. These features will be highlighted during our virtual ―Journey to the Center of the Earth‖.
As it is commonly done, we have represented (Figure 1 and Table 1) the Earth as a layered sphere of 6371 km radius. The Earth is actually not quite spherical. Because of the rotation on its axis, the Earth is approximately an ellipsoid with the equatorial radius being about 21 km larger than the polar radius. Also, in detail, the Earth is not exactly spherically symmetric. Lateral as well as vertical variations in composition and rock properties have been recognized from seismological and other geophysical observations. Finally, because of plate tectonics, there are significant differences in shallow Earth structure in continental versus oceanic areas, near plate boundaries, and at different locations on the surface. For these reasons, the depths to the boundaries that we will encounter in our journey would be slightly different if we chose a different location for the start of our journey. The depths, properties and other descriptions listed in the scale model for our journey are reasonable average values for a continental region.
Once one realizes that the interior of the Earth is hot, it is natural to ask, why is it hot? Because the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, it would seem logical that the planet would have cooled by now. The heat within the Earth results primarily from two sources – original heat from the Earth’s
formation and radiogenic heat (Poirier, 2000). The largest of these sources, radiogenic heat, is mostly produced by three, naturally occurring, radioactive elements, Uranium, Thorium and Potassium. These elements are present in the mantle at concentrations of about 0.015 ppm (parts per million; meaning that only about 15 of every billion atoms in the mantle are Uranium) for
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Uranium, 0.080 ppm for Thorium and 0.1% for Potassium (Brown and Mussett, 1981). Spontaneous radioactive decay of these elements releases heat. Although the major radioactive elements are more concentrated (10 to 100 times as abundant) in the Earth’s crust, most of the
radiogenic heat production comes from the mantle because of the much greater volume. The original heat from formation of the Earth dates from the accretion of the Earth from planetesimals that bombarded the early planet converting gravitational energy into heat.
Modern scientific information about the interior of the Earth comes from a variety of studies including: seismology in which seismic waves from earthquakes and other sources are used to generate images of the interior structure and determine the physical properties of Earth materials; analysis of the Earth’s gravity field indicates density variations; high-pressure mineral experiments
that are used to infer the composition of deep layers; thermal modeling of temperature measurements in drill holes; modeling of the Earth’s magnetic field that is produced by convection currents in the electrically-conductive outer core; and chemical analysis of rock samples (called xenoliths) from deep within the Earth that are brought to the surface in volcanic eruptions. More information about the deep Earth and the methods of study of the Earth’s interior can be found in the references listed below. A good starting point is the book by Bolt (1993), the American Scientist article by Wysession (1995) or a chapter on the Earth’s interior by Wysession from an
introductory geology textbook (see reference list). More advanced readers may wish to refer to Brown and Mussett (1981), Jeanloz (1993), Ahrens (1995), Wysession (1996), Poirier (2000) and Gurnis (2001). For younger readers, examine the children’s book by Harris (1999). Much of the
information about deep Earth properties and conditions given in Table 1 comes from Ahrens (1995). Information about microbes in the Earth’s crust (mentioned in the Narrative, Stop
number 3) is from Fredrickson and Onstott (1996).
Procedure and Teaching Strategies: A scale model (either a ―classroom‖ scale or a
―playground or hallway‖ scale; Figures 1 and 2 and Table 1) is used to provide the depths and
locations of stops for a virtual journey to the center of the Earth.
Using a meter stick or meter wheel, mark out the locations of the 12 stops in the classroom (1:1,000,000 scale model; 6.37 m long) or playground or hallway (1:100,000 scale model; 63.7 m long). Masking tape placed on the floor or pavement is a convenient method for marking the stops. A felt pen can be used to label the stop number on the strip of masking tape. Folded index cards, labeled with the stop number, can also be used and have the advantage that the numbers can be seen from a distance (looking forward or backward to stops along the journey. Depths and the names of the locations can also be labeled using the masking tape, if desired. Provide each student in the class with a copy of the ―Tour Guide‖ that can be produced as described near the
end of this document. Folding the page in ―thirds‖ creates a small brochure that each student can use on the tour and take home to help them remember the information that they learned and their experiences on the Journey to the Center of the Earth.
1. With the class, start at stop number 1 (the Earth’s surface) and read the first part of the
―Journey to the Center of the Earth Narrative‖ (below). Proceed to the other stops and
read the appropriate section of the narrative at each stop. Be sure to point out the
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distance that you’ve traveled in each move (by looking forward and backward along the model and using the scaled and actual distances from Table 1) and the distance that is remaining to travel to the Earth’s center. Answer student (traveler) questions at each stop. The information in Table 1 may be useful for answering questions. Other questions may form the basis of class or individual student research (―let’s find out‖) using the references
listed below or library or Internet searches.
2. When back in the classroom, use transparencies (or copies) of Table 1 and Figures 1, 2 and 3 to review with the students the main features of the Earth’s interior and the properties and conditions at various depths within the Earth. Note the increases in density, temperature and pressure with depth within the Earth and the abrupt changes in density at the major boundaries between layers. Additional questions can be answered or used to prompt additional study (such as other activities related to the Earth’s interior structure or
plate tectonics) or research or to provide an assessment of student learning from the activity.
3. As an extension, or to connect to reading, writing and literature study, have the class read Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center to the Earth (or selected chapters) or watch the
movie (it is about 2 hours long, although one could skip the first approximately 30 minutes; starting as the explorers begin to climb the volcano). Relevant writing assignments for the students could be to write their own brief version of A Journey to the
Center of the Earth based on the more accurate information about the nature of the
Earth’s interior; write a review of the book or movie, or write about the inaccuracies and
misconceptions that are evident in the book and movie. The accuracies and misconceptions also can provide material for an effective class discussion and assessment of student learning after reading Verne’s book or viewing the movie.
4. For younger students, reading Journey to the Center of the Earth (Harris, 1999) or The
Magic School Bus Inside the Earth (Cole, 1987) before or after completing the journey is
a useful extension and connection to literature.
5. Related Earth structure activities include Earth’s Interior Structure (Braile, 2000) and
Three-D Earth Structure Model (Braile and Braile, 2000). A useful and attractive color poster (Earth Anatomy poster) illustrating Earth’s interior structure is available from the Wright Center for Science Education, Tufts University. A page size version of the poster can be downloaded from http://www.tufts.edu/as/wright_center/svl/posters/erth.html.
6. Additional extensions are also possible. An interesting assignment is to have each student or pair of students select one stop (depth) along the journey. Have the student or student team learn about the materials and conditions at that depth (some additional reading from the references provided below or from online sources would be necessary) and then draw an illustration that can be used to help describe each stop on the journey. Rock samples, if available (even photographs of rock or mineral samples from a book or from the Internet*), could also be placed at each stop to help illustrate the materials that make up
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the Earth’s interior. A piece of iron or steel can be used for the Earth’s core remembering
that it will be liquid iron in the outer core. The student experts from one class, stationed
at each stop, could also be the tour guides that would provide information, show their
illustration and rock sample, and read the appropriate section of the journey narrative for
another class or group of students. The experience of students learning in-depth
information about one area of the tour and serving as ―experts‖ can be an excellent
―students teaching students‖ approach to learning. To emphasize the long journey or tour
experience in the ―Journey to the Center of the Earth‖ activity, a glass of water, a piece of
candy or other refreshments could be served at one of the stops, probably the core/mantle
boundary (stop 10) which is a little less than half way along the journey in terms of depth.
7. Connections of this activity to the National Science Education Standards (National
Research Council, 1996) are listed in Table 3 below.
* Photographs of appropriate rocks and minerals can be found at several online sources, including: http://www.soes.soton.ac.uk/resources/collection/minerals/ (these photos can be enlarged by
clicking on the photo until the photograph is almost full screen size); examples of sedimentary rocks are appropriate for the surface stop, number 1, click on ―Sedimentary Rocks‖ at top of web
page; for example, see sample #8, a sandstone; Granite samples from the ―Igneous Rocks‖ link
can be used for stops 2, 3, 4, and 5, alternatively, Gneiss samples could be used to represent crustal rocks, particularly for stops 4 and 5 that are deeper in the upper continental crust; Gabbro or Basalt samples, also from the ―Igneous Rocks‖ link can be used to represent lower crustal rocks; a photograph of Olivine, an iron-magnesium silicate that is a common mineral in the Earth’s mantle – stops 6 – 10 – can be found in the ―Minerals‖ section of the above web site or at:
http://www.musee.ensmp.fr/gm/836.html; for the Earth’s core, a photo of an iron-nickel meteorite
(http://www-curator.jsc.nasa.gov/outreach1/expmetmys/slideset/IronMet.JPG) is a good
representation of the material that forms the core. A selection of photos that are useful for representing typical rocks from the Earth’s interior is provided in Table 2 below.
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Table 1. Journey to the Center of the Earth Scaled Scaled Pres-Stop Depth Name or Rock/ Density Temp. Depth (m) Depth (m) sure 3Num. (km) Location Material (g/cm) (Deg C) 1:1 million 1:100,000 (MPa)
0.001 Earth's Atmosphere 1 0 0 0 0.1 ~10 Sediments Surface 1.5 0.001 0.01 Top of 2.0 Sed. Rocks 2 1 20 ~16 Granitic Rk. (1 mm) (1 cm) "Basement" 2.6 0.0036 0.036 Deepest Granitic 3 3.6 2.7 100 ~50 (3.6 mm) (3.6 cm) Mine Rock 0.01 0.1 Granitic 4 10 Upper Crust 2.7 300 ~180 (1 cm) (10 cm) Rock 0.012 0.12 Deepest Granitic 5 12 2.7 360 ~200 (1.2 cm) (12 cm) Drill Hole Rock
Base of Mafic Rock 0.035 0.35 3.0 Crust Olivine-rich 6 35 1100 ~600 3.3 (3.5 cm) (35 cm) ("Moho") Rk.
0.1 Base of Olivine-rich 7 100 1 3.4 3200 ~1200 (10 cm) Lithosphere Rock 0.15 Astheno-Olivine-rich 8 150 1.5 3.35 4800 ~1300 (15 cm) sphere Rock 0.67 Fe-Mg Upper Mantle 9 670 6.7 4.1 23800 ~1700 Transition (67 cm) Silicate
Fe-Mg 5.6 Core/Mantle Silicate 10 2885 2.885 28.85 135800 ~3500 Boundary 9.9 Liquid Iron
Inner Liquid Iron 12.2 Core/Outer 11 5155 5.155 51.55 329000 ~5200 Solid Iron 12.8 Core Bound.
Center of 12 6371 6.37 63.7 Solid Iron 13.1 364000 ~5500 Earth
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Table 1. (cont.) Journey to the Center of the Earth
Stop Description/Comments Num.
The Earth's surface is a marked boundary, between the solid or liquid Earth below and the
Atmosphere above, with distinct changes in properties. Surface materials on land are usually 1
soil, sediments, sedimentary rocks or weathered crystalline rocks.
Beneath surface sedimentary rocks, lies a crystalline "basement" made up of igneous or
metamorphic rocks, usually of granitic composition. A typical depth to the basement is 1 km 2
although deep (>5 km) sedimentary basins are common.
The deepest depth that humans have explored on land is in a gold mine in South Africa --
almost 3.6 km deep. In the oceans, a special submarine carried explorers to the bottom of the 3
Mariana trench at over 11 km below the Pacific Ocean's surface.
Upper layer of continental crust consists of granitic (high % of Silicon and Oxygen) rocks. Except in subduction zones, where two plates collide, most earthquakes occur in the upper 4
crust. Lower crust is more mafic (higher % of Mg and Fe).
The deepest drill holes in the Earth are about 12 km deep. Rock samples have been recovered from these depths. The holes have been drilled for scientific study of the crust and to explore 5
for petroleum in deep sedimentary basins.
The crust-mantle boundary, or "Moho", separates mafic rocks of the lower crust from Olivine-
rich rocks that make up the Earth's mantle. The depth to the Moho varies from about 10 km in 6
oceanic regions to over 70 km beneath high mountain areas.
The depth of this boundary is controlled by temperature. It is a gradual rather than an abupt
boundary. The lithosphere (tectonic plates) above is relatively cool, rigid and brittle. Lower 7
lithosphere is mantle. Beneath is the "soft" asthenosphere.
Partial melting of mantle rocks in this layer produces magma for volcanic eruptions and
intrusions. Although a solid, asthenosphere is hot enough to flow in convection currents. 8
Lithosphere/asthenosphere boundary is shallower in hot regions.
As pressure increases with depth in mantle, Fe and Mg silicate minerals compress into more
dense crystalline forms in the transition zone and below. Mantle is relatively homogeneous 9 chemically and forms ~82% of Earth by volume. Deep earthquakes in subduction zones are found to a depth of about 670 km.
Boundary separates liquid iron core from the silicate rock mantle. A transition zone (~200 km
thick) exists just above the core-mantle boundary that may represent areas of partially melted mantle (the bottom of mantle plumes) from heat flowing from the outer core, or old lithospheric 10 slabs that have descended to the bottom of the mantle. The core is ~16.5% of the Earth by volume but about 33% of the Earth by mass. No seismic shear waves travel in outer core. Convection currents in the electrically conductive outer core produce Earth's magnetic field.
This boundary separates the solid inner core from the liquid iron (and ~10% nickel, sulfur,
silicon and oxygen) outer core. Although the radius of the inner core is about 1216 km, the 11
inner core includes only about 0.7% of the volume of the Earth.
Earth's center is within the dense, iron inner core. Although the temperature is very high, the 12 pressure is so great (~3.6 million times the pressure at the surface), that the inner core is solid.
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Table 1. (cont.) Journey to the Center of the Earth Description of Column
1. Stop Number -- The stop number for our virtual "Journey to the Center of the Earth", in
which we will travel from the Earth's surface to the Earth's center (using a scale model).
2. Depth -- The depth (in the Earth) in kilometers corresponding to each stop in our journey.
Many of the depths are approximate and will vary by location.
3. Scaled Depth -- The depth (in meters) for each stop in the 1:1 million scale model. Total
depth (surface to center) in the scale model is 6.37 m. "Classroom scale" model.
4. Scaled Depth -- The depth (in meters) for each stop in the 1:100,000 scale model. Total
depth (surface to center) in the scale model is 63.7 m. "Playground or hallway scale" model.
5. Name or Location -- Description or name of the location of each stop.
5. Rock/Material -- Rock type, description or composition of the material at each stop. Two
entries separated by a line give the rock type or material both above and below a boundary at
the corresponding depth.
6. Density -- The approximate density (in grams per cubic centimeter; for comparison, the 3density of water is 1 g/cm) of the material at each stop. Two entries separated by a line give
the density of the rock or material above and below the boundary.
7. Pressure -- The approximate pressure (in Mega-Pascals) at each stop (depth in the Earth).
One atmosphere of pressure (the pressure at the Earth's surface due to the weight of the 22atmosphere above us) is about 0.1 MPa (1 Kg/cm or ~14 lbs/in). The pressure in the tires of a car (and at about 10 meters depth under water) is about 2 atmospheres or about 0.2 MPa.
8. Temperature -- The approximate temperature in degrees Celsius at each stop (depth in the
9. Description/Comments -- Description and comments about the material and conditions at
each stop in the journey.
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Figure 2. Earth’s
interior (to scale)
showing the depths to the major boundaries
between the Earth’s
layers (spherical shells). The numbered dots
indicate the locations of the stops (Table 1) in our virtual journey. A close-
up view (Figure 3) of the upper 150 km of the
Earth’s interior shows the locations of the first eight stops.