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.
The Anthropocene: A New Epoch in the Earth’s History
We visualize Earth’s history through the geological timeline to reveal the planet’s many epochs, including the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene: A New Epoch in the Earth’s History
Over the course of Earth’s history, there have been dramatic shifts in the landscape, climate, and biodiversity of the planet. And it is all archived underground.
Layers of the planet’s crust carry evidence of pivotal moments that changed the face of the Earth, such as the ice age and asteroid hits. And scientists have recently defined the next major epoch using this geological time scale—the Anthropocene.
In this infographic we dig deep into the Earth’s geological timeline to reveal the planet’s shift from one epoch to another, and the specific events that separate them.
Understanding the Geological Timeline
The Earth’s geological history is divided into many distinct units, from eons to ages. The time span of each varies, since they’re dependent on major events like new species introduction, as well as how they fit into their parent units.
|Geochronologic unit||Time span||Example|
|Eon||Several hundred million years to two billion years||Phanerozoic|
|Era||Tens to hundreds of millions of years||Cenozoic|
|Period||Millions of years to tens of millions of years||Quaternary|
|Epoch||Hundreds of thousands of years to tens of millions of years||Holocene|
|Age||Thousands of years to millions of years||Meghalayan|
Note: Subepochs (between epochs and ages) have also been ratified for use in 2022, but are not yet clearly defined.
If we were to cut a mountain in half, we could notice layers representing these changing spans of time, marked by differences in chemical composition and accumulated sediment.
Some boundaries are so distinct and so widespread in the geologic record that they are known as “golden spikes.” Golden spikes can be climatic, magnetic, biological, or isotopic (chemical).
Earth’s Geological Timeline Leading Up to the Anthropocene
The Earth has gone through many epochs leading up to the modern Anthropocene.
These include epochs like the Early Devonian, which saw the dawn of the first early shell organisms 400 million years ago, and the three Jurassic epochs, which saw dinosaurs become the dominant terrestrial vertebrates.
Over the last 11,700 years, we have been living in the Holocene epoch, a relatively stable period that enabled human civilization to flourish. But after millennia of human activity, this epoch is quickly making way for the Anthropocene.
|Epoch||Its start (MYA = Million Years Ago)|
|Anthropocene||70 Years Ago|
The Anthropocene is distinguished by a myriad of imprints on the Earth including the proliferation of plastic particles and a noticeable increase in carbon dioxide levels in sediments.
A New Chapter in Earth’s History
The clearest identified marker of this geological time shift, and the chosen golden spike for the Anthropocene, is radioactive plutonium from nuclear testing in the 1950s.
The best example has been found in the sediment of Crawford Lake in Ontario, Canada. The lake has two distinct layers of water that never intermix, causing falling sediments to settle in distinct layers at its bed over time.
While the International Commission on Stratigraphy announced the naming of the new epoch in July 2023, Crawford Lake is still in the process of getting approved as the site that marks the new epoch. If selected, our planet will officially enter the Crawfordian Age of the Anthropocene.
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