Visualizing the Abundance of Elements in the Earth’s Crust
Elements in the Earth’s crust provide all the basic building blocks for mankind.
But even though the crust is the source of everything we find, mine, refine, and build, it really is just scratching the surface of our planet.
After all, the innermost layer of the Earth, the core, represents 15% of the planet’s volume, whereas the mantle occupies 84%. Representing the remaining 1% is the crust, a thin layer that ranges in depth from approximately 5-70 km (~3-44 miles).
This infographic takes a look at what elements make up this 1%, based on data from WorldAtlas.
Earth’s Crust Elements
The crust is a rigid surface containing both the oceans and landmasses. Most elements are found in only trace amounts within the Earth’s crust, but several are abundant.
The Earth’s crust comprises about 95% igneous and metamorphic rocks, 4% shale, 0.75% sandstone, and 0.25% limestone.
Oxygen, silicon, aluminum, and iron account for 88.1% of the mass of the Earth’s crust, while another 90 elements make up the remaining 11.9%.
|Rank||Element||% of Earth's Crust|
While gold, silver, copper and other base and precious metals are among the most sought after elements, together they make up less than 0.03% of the Earth’s crust by mass.
Oxygen is by far the most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, making up 46% of mass—coming up just short of half of the total.
Oxygen is a highly reactive element that combines with other elements, forming oxides. Some examples of common oxides are minerals such as granite and quartz (oxides of silicon), rust (oxides of iron), and limestone (oxide of calcium and carbon).
More than 90% of the Earth’s crust is composed of silicate minerals, making silicon the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.
Silicon links up with oxygen to form the most common minerals on Earth. For example, in most places, sand primarily consists of silica (silicon dioxide) usually in the form of quartz. Silicon is an essential semiconductor, used in manufacturing electronics and computer chips.
Aluminum is the third most common element in the Earth’s crust.
Because of its strong affinity for oxygen, aluminum is rarely found in its elemental state. Aluminum oxide (Al2O3), aluminum hydroxide (Al(OH)3) and potassium aluminum sulphate (KAl(SO4)2) are common aluminum compounds.
Aluminum and aluminum alloys have a variety of uses, from kitchen foil to rocket manufacturing.
The fourth most common element in the Earth’s crust is iron, accounting for over 5% of the mass of the Earth’s crust.
Iron is obtained chiefly from the minerals hematite and magnetite. Of all the metals we mine, over 90% is iron, mainly to make steel, an alloy of carbon and iron. Iron is also an essential nutrient in the human body.
Calcium makes up about 4.2% of the planet’s crust by weight.
In its pure elemental state, calcium is a soft, silvery-white alkaline earth metal. It is never found in its isolated state in nature but exists instead in compounds. Calcium compounds can be found in a variety of minerals, including limestone (calcium carbonate), gypsum (calcium sulphate) and fluorite (calcium fluoride).
Calcium compounds are widely used in the food and pharmaceutical industries for supplementation. They are also used as bleaches in the paper industry, as components in cement and electrical insulators, and in manufacturing soaps.
Digging the Earth’s Crust
Despite Jules Verne’s novel, no one has ever journeyed to the center of Earth.
In fact, the deepest hole ever dug by humanity reaches approximately 12 km (7.5 miles) below the Earth’s surface, about one-third of the way to the Earth’s mantle. This incredible depth took about 20 years to reach.
Although mankind is constantly making new discoveries and reaching for the stars, there is still a lot to explore about the Earth we stand on.
200 Years of Global Gold Production, by Country
Global gold production has grown exponentially since the 1800s, with 86% of all above-ground gold mined in the last 200 years.
Visualizing Global Gold Production Over 200 Years
Although the practice of gold mining has been around for thousands of years, it’s estimated that roughly 86% of all above-ground gold was extracted in the last 200 years.
With modern mining techniques making large-scale production possible, global gold production has grown exponentially since the 1800s.
The above infographic uses data from Our World in Data to visualize global gold production by country from 1820 to 2022, showing how gold mining has evolved to become increasingly global over time.
A Brief History of Gold Mining
The best-known gold rush in modern history occurred in California in 1848, when James Marshall discovered gold in the Sacramento Valley. As word spread, thousands of migrants flocked to California in search of gold, and by 1855, miners had extracted around $2 billion worth of gold.
The United States, Australia, and Russia were (interchangeably) the three largest gold producers until the 1890s. Then, South Africa took the helm thanks to the massive discovery in the Witwatersrand Basin, now regarded today as one of the world’s greatest ever goldfields.
South Africa’s annual gold production peaked in 1970 at 1,002 tonnes—by far the largest amount of gold produced by any country in a year.
With the price of gold rising since the 1980s, global gold production has become increasingly widespread. By 2007, China was the world’s largest gold-producing nation, and today a significant quantity of gold is being mined in over 40 countries.
The Top Gold-Producing Countries in 2022
Around 31% of the world’s gold production in 2022 came from three countries—China, Russia, and Australia, with each producing over 300 tonnes of the precious metal.
|Rank||Country||2022E Gold Production, tonnes||% of Total|
|#5||🇺🇸 United States||170||5%|
|#8||🇿🇦 South Africa||110||4%|
|-||🌍 Rest of the World||1,030||33%|
North American countries Canada, the U.S., and Mexico round out the top six gold producers, collectively making up 16% of the global total. The state of Nevada alone accounted for 72% of U.S. production, hosting the world’s largest gold mining complex (including six mines) owned by Nevada Gold Mines.
Meanwhile, South Africa produced 110 tonnes of gold in 2022, down by 74% relative to its output of 430 tonnes in 2000. This long-term decline is the result of mine closures, maturing assets, and industrial conflict, according to the World Gold Council.
Interestingly, two smaller gold producers on the list, Uzbekistan and Indonesia, host the second and third-largest gold mining operations in the world, respectively.
The Outlook for Global Gold Production
Gold prices have been hovering around the $1,900-$2,000 per ounce near all-time highs. For mining companies, higher gold prices can mean more profits per ounce if costs remain unaffected.
According to the World Gold Council, mined gold production is expected to increase in 2023 and could surpass the record set in 2018 (3,300 tonnes), led by the expansion of existing projects in North America. The chances of record mine output could be higher if gold prices continue to increase.
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