Earth, Moon, and Planets

, Volume 67, Issue 1, pp 101-113

First online:

Cryovolcanism on the icy satellites

  • J. S. KargelAffiliated withU.S. Geological Survey

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Evidence of past cryovolcanism is widespread and extremely varied on the icy satellites. Some cryovolcanic landscapes, notably on Triton, are similar to many silicate volcanic terrains, including what appear to be volcanic rifts, calderas and solidified lava lakes, flow fields, breached cinder cones or stratovolcanoes, viscous lava domes, and sinuous rilles. Most other satellites have terrains that are different in the important respect that no obvious volcanoes are present. The preserved record of cryovolcanism generally is believed to have formed by eruptions of aqueous solutions and slurries. Even Triton's volcanic crust, which is covered by nitrogen-rich frost, is probably dominated by water ice. Nonpolar and weakly polar molecular liquids (mainly N2, CH4, CO, CO2, and Ar), may originate by decomposition of gas-clathrate hydrates and may have been erupted on some icy satellites, but without water these substances do not form rigid solids that are stable against sublimation or melting over geologic time. Triton's plumes, active at the time of Voyager 2's flyby, may consist of multicomponent nonpolar gas mixtures. The plumes may be volcanogenic fumaroles or geyserlike emissions powered by deep internal heating, and, thus, the plumes may be indicating an interior that is still cryomagmatically active; or Triton's plumes may be powered by solar heating of translucent ices very near the surface. The Uranian and Neptunian satellites Miranda, Ariel, and Triton have flow deposits that are hundreds to thousands of meters thick (implying highly viscous lavas); by contrast, the Jovian and Saturnian satellites generally have plains-forming deposits composed of relatively thin flows whose thicknesses have not been resolved in Voyager images (thus implying relatively low-viscosity lavas). One possible explanation for this inferred rheological distinction involves a difference in volatile composition of the Uranian and Neptunian satellites on one hand and of the Jovian and Saturnian satellites on the other hand. Perhaps the Jovian and Saturnian satellites tend to have relatively "clean" compositions with water ice as the main volatile (ammonia and water-soluble salts may also be present). The Uranian and Neptunian satellites may possess large amounts of a chemically unequilibrated comet-like volatile assemblage, including methanol, formaldehyde, and a host of other highly water- and ammonia-water-soluble constituents and gas clathrate hydrates. These two volatile mixtures would produce melts that differ enormously in viscosity The geomorphologic similarity in the products of volcanism on Earth and Triton may arise partly from a rheological similarity of the ammonia-water-methanol series of liquids and the silicate series ranging from basalt to dacite. An abundance of gas clathrate hydrates hypothesized to be contained by the satellites of Uranus and Neptune could contribute to evidence of explosive volcanism on those objects.