The equivalent elastic thickness (EET) is used to estimate lithospheric strength expressed in response to loading by topography and subsurface loads. The data on EET allow comparisons between different plates and detection of thermal events. In oceans, the EET corresponds to the mechanical “core” of the lithosphere, i.e., a geotherm (400–600 °C). In continents, the EET has no relation to any depth. This has led to doubts in applicability of a unique approach to the continents and oceans, and in the utility of estimates of EET for continents. Rheological data suggest that most rocks are inelastic in the long term (>0.1 m.y.). This requires interpretation of the EET in terms of real rheology. We propose an analytical model that gives rheological interpretation of both the oceanic and continental EET. It also allows estimates of the mechanical thickness of the lithosphere. The EET depends upon three parameters: geotherm age, crustal thickness, and flexural plate curvature. Any one of these values can be estimated if the others are known. Comparisons of model predictions with the observed EET suggest that most continental plates have a weak lower crust, allowing mechanical decoupling between the upper crust and the mantle lithosphere. Such decoupling leads to strong reduction in the EET and thus can be easily detected. Flow of rocks in the weak lower crust may have a significant influence on the temporal evolution of relief (mountain building, erosion). Differences in the mechanical behavior of oceans and continents can be explained by domination of different parameters: geotherm age has a major control in the oceans, whereas in the continents crustal thickness is equally important. Additional local variations of the EET result from weakening by flexural stresses.

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