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A new Lithospheric and Tectonic Model for Earth


Global depth to the LAB and plate boundaries (after (Afonso, 2019) and (Hasterok, 2022)

The Earth’s lithosphere is its rigid outer shell, which rests on the more fluid asthenosphere. The thickness of the lithosphere varies, from a few kilometers at ocean spreading centers to 250-300 kilometers within continental cratons. There are two significant seismic boundaries in the crust and upper mantle: the Mohorovicic Discontinuity (Moho), indicating a change from felsic-to-mafic rocks to ultramafic peridotites, and the Lithosphere-Asthenosphere Boundary (LAB), which signifies a shift from a strong, plate-like layer to a weaker, convective asthenosphere over geological time. This transition occurs around the conductive-adiabatic geotherm intersection, where heat transfer shifts from conduction to convection.

The thickness of the continental lithosphere depends on its tectono-thermal age, increasing from 60-80 kilometers in active extensional regions to 100-160 kilometers in older terranes and up to 200-300 kilometers in ancient cratons. Some exceptions exist in cratons affected by more recent tectonic and magmatic events. The lithosphere appears as a seismic high-wavespeed layer, or “lid,” over a low-wavespeed zone or a gradual decrease in seismic wavespeed with depth. This boundary is referred to as the “8°-discontinuity” or the mid-lithosphere discontinuity (MLD). Different seismic methods may detect different depths for the LAB or MLD, depending on their sensitivity.

The cratonic LAB is subject to debate, with some proposing a broad thermal boundary zone and others suggesting a sharper transition influenced by factors such as chemical composition, melt content, or vertical anisotropy variation. The presence of an observable S-to-P (Sp) conversion in seismic data requires a thermal gradient of at least 20°C per kilometer. While such gradients are common beneath oceanic and non-cratonic areas, cratons typically exhibit much lower gradients. Multiple factors, including various scales of mantle convection, can contribute to localized high thermal gradients at the LAB.

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