A great deal of both theoretical petrology and tectonics hinges on how temperature changes with depth within the Earth. The geotherm, as this variation is termed, depends on how heat is conducted – by conduction, convection or radiation – and where it is produced – either as a relic of original heat of Earth’s accretion or through decay of radioactive isotopes. There are plenty of imponderables, and it would be safe to say that, below the depths at which we can measure temperature (a few km), geotherms are guesswork. Metamorphism, partial melting in crust and mantle, and the rigidity of rock depend on temperature and pressure. Rocks that are too cool to act in a plastic manner tend only to conduct heat, and they are poor conductors. This applies to most of the crust, especially the lower continental crust, which is also low in heat producing radioactive K, U and Th isotopes and rigid. The upshot of this is that the crust acts to insulate the mantle, and that implies build-up of heat and temperature just below the crust. A new means of measuring a rock’s thermal conductivity has revealed that thermal conductivity actually decreases as temperature rises (Whittington, A.G et al. 2009. Temperature dependent thermal diffusivity of the Earth’s crust and implications for magmatism. Nature, v. 458, p. 319-321). The range of crustal temperatures in both continental and oceanic crust roughly halves conduction in the lower crust from previously measured values. This further increases insulation of the mantle, boosting the chances of partial melting.
This tallies with a coincidentally published account of how seismic shear waves change speed with depth beneath the oceanic crust (Kawakatsu, H. et al. 2009. Seismic evidence for sharp lithosphere-asthenosphere boundaries of oceanic plates. Science, v. 324, p. 499-502). As well as sharply showing up the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary, thought to be a transition from brittle to ductile behaviour, it detects thin layers of partially melted peridotite, which facilitates plate tectonics. A further coincidence is publication of an analysis of 15 years of global earthquake records that focuses on the base of the lithosphere (Rychert, C.A. & Shearer, P.M 2009. A global view of the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary. Science, v. 324, p. 495-498). As well as its thickness this effectively maps the top of the asthenosphere and therefore the thickness of tectonic plates across the planet, albeit crudely (previously both had been estimated from surface heat flow and theoretical models). Beneath cratons that have remained sluggish for more than a billion years, the asthenosphere is deep (~95 km) and thin, shallowing and thickening appreciably beneath more recently active continental belts. Despite being the uppermost Earth and the stuff of plates and the medium upon which they move, respectively, the lithosphere and asthenosphere are less-well known than the mantle and even the core in terms of the mechanical properties. That may sound odd, but there is a good reason why it is so: more deeply travelled seismic waves are a great deal easier to record by the global network of seismic stations than are shallow regions.