[ lith-uh-sfeer ]
/ ˈlɪθ əˌsfɪər /
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noun Geology.
the solid portion of the earth (distinguished from atmosphere, hydrosphere).
the crust and upper mantle of the earth.


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Also called ge·o·sphere [jee-uh-sfeer] /ˈdʒi əˌsfɪər/ .

Origin of lithosphere

First recorded in 1885–90; litho- + -sphere

OTHER WORDS FROM lithosphere

lith·o·spher·ic [lith-uh-sfer-ik], /ˌlɪθ əˈsfɛr ɪk/, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is the lithosphere?

The lithosphere is the outermost layer of the Earth’s surface. It is rugged, dense, and mostly made out of solid rock.

Generally speaking, Earth is made of a really hot core and layers of rock that get colder the farther you move from the center. The lithosphere is the farthest layer from the core and so is the coldest, made of mostly solid rock.

The lithosphere consists of the crust, the actual surface of Earth that we walk on, and the upper part of the mantle, the rocky majority of the inner Earth between the core and the crust. The lithosphere averages about 75 km in thickness, depending on age.

The lithosphere sits on top of the weaker, denser asthenosphere and slowly floats on top of it. The lithosphere is broken into solid chunks, known as plates, that drift on top of the asthenosphere and move a few inches every year. Sometimes, the plates of the lithosphere collide, break, or rub into each other, which is known as plate tectonics. Plate tectonics is responsible for earthquakes, volcanoes, and a variety of other geologic events.

Why is lithosphere important?

The first records of the term lithosphere come from around 1885. It combines litho, which means “stone,” and sphere, meaning “spherical” or “layer of a sphere.” The lithosphere is the hardest, most solid layer of stone that makes up the spherical Earth.

In addition to the asthenosphere, the lithosphere also regularly comes into contact with other layers of the Earth. For example living creatures from the biosphere interact with rocks to create the nutrient-rich soil. Rain and rivers from the hydrosphere and glaciers from the cryosphere cause erosion and carve the lithosphere into mountains and valleys. And temperature changes depending on interactions between the lithosphere and the atmosphere. High mountain ranges are very cold due to the low air pressure of the atmosphere.

Did you know … ?

Both the lithosphere and asthenosphere were named by geologist Joseph Barrell in the early 1900s. Prior to Barrell, geologists believed the supposedly solid outer layer of the Earth was created purely by the oceans.

What are real-life examples of lithosphere?

You are very unlikely to hear the term lithosphere from anyone who isn’t a geologist or a geology student.


What other words are related to lithosphere?

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

The lithosphere is made of soft molten rock that constantly moves, causing earthquakes and volcanoes.

How to use lithosphere in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for lithosphere

/ (ˈlɪθəˌsfɪə) /

the rigid outer layer of the earth, having an average thickness of about 75 km and comprising the earth's crust and the solid part of the mantle above the asthenosphere
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Scientific definitions for lithosphere

[ lĭthə-sfîr′ ]

The outer part of the Earth, consisting of the crust and upper mantle. It is about 55 km (34 mi) thick beneath the oceans and up to about 200 km (124 mi) thick beneath the continents. The high velocity with which seismic waves propagate through the lithosphere suggests that it is completely solid. Compare asthenosphere atmosphere hydrosphere.
The American Heritage® Science Dictionary Copyright © 2011. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Cultural definitions for lithosphere

[ (lith-uh-sfeer) ]

The outer layer of the Earth, comprising the crust and the upper part of the mantle. The lithosphere is about sixty miles thick.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.