A problem worth its weight in salt

Pictures of Jupiter’s moon Europa taken by the Galileo space probe between 1995 and 2003 support the possibility that Europa’s surface has plate tectonics. In fact, scientists think it could be one of only two bodies in the Solar System – the other being Earth – to display this feature. But it must be noted that Europa’s tectonics is nothing like Earth’s if only because the materials undergoing this process are very different – compare the composition of Earth’s crust and Europa’s ice shell. There are also no arc volcanoes or continents on Europa.1 But this doesn’t mean there aren’t any similarities either. For example, scientists have acknowledged that shifting ice plates on the moon’s surface, with some diving over others and pushing them down, could be a way for minerals on the top to plunge further interior. Because Europa has been suspected of harbouring a subsurface ocean of liquid water, a mineral cycle could be boosting the chances of finding life there. Plate tectonics played a similar role in making Earth habitable.

The biggest giveaway is that the moon’s surface is not littered with craters the way other Jupiter moons are. This meant that cratered patches of the ice shell were disappearing into somewhere and replaced with ‘cleaner’ patches. There are also kilometre-long ridges on the shell suggesting that something had moved along that distance, and they ended abruptly in some places. In 2014, a pair of geologists from Johns Hopkins and the University of Idaho used software like Photoshop to cut up Galileo’s maps of Europa and stitch them back together such that the ridges lined up. They found that there were some areas with a “big gap”. One way to explain it was that the patch there had dived beneath a neighbouring one – a simple version of plate tectonics. But tantalising as the possibility is, more evidence is needed before we can be sure.

If we’re hoping to find the first alien life inside a Jovian moon, we’ll need good models that can help us predict how life might’ve evolved there. A new paper from researchers at Brown University tries to help by trying to figure out why the plates might be shifting (To say something could be happening, it helps to have a simple way it could be happening and with the available resources). On Earth, interactions between the crust and the mantle are motivated among other factors by differences in temperature. The crust is cooler than the magma it ‘slides’ over, which means it’s denser, which assists its subduction when it happens. Such differences aren’t mirrored on Europa, where scientists think there’s a thin, cold ice shell on top and a relatively warmer one below. When a patch of ice from the top slides down, it becomes warmer because the upper layer provides insulation, which prevents the sliding layer from sliding further down because the density has been evened out.

Instead, the Brown University fellows think the density differences could arise thanks to salt content (which, by the way, could also be useful when reading their press release. It says, “A Brown University study provides new evidence that the icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa may have plate tectonics similar to those on Earth.” You know it’s not similar, especially if left unqualified like that.) Salt is denser than water, so ice that has more salt is more dense. A 2003 study also suggested that warmer ice will have lesser salt because eutectic mixtures could be dissolving and draining it out. So using a computer model and making supposedly reasonable assumptions about the shell’s temperature, porosity and salinity ranges, the Brown team calculated that ice slabs made up of 5% salt and saltier than their surroundings by 2.5% would be able to subduct. However, if the distribution of salt was uniform on Europa’s surface (varying by less than 1% from slab to slab, e.g.), then a subducting slab would have to have at least 22% salt → very high.

I said “supposedly reasonable assumptions” because we don’t exactly know how salinity and porosity vary around and through Europa. In their simulations, the researchers assumed that the ice has a porosity of 10% (i.e. 10% of the material is filled with pores), which is considered to be on the higher side of things. But the study remains interesting because it’s able to establish the big role salts can play in how the ice moves around. This is also significant because Galileo found the Europan magnetic field to be stronger than it ought to, suggesting the subsurface ocean had a lot of salt. So it’s plausible that the cryomagma2 on which Europa’s upper shell moves could be derived from the waters below.

The researchers also claim that if the subducting slab doesn’t lose all its salt in about one million years, it will remain dense enough to go all the way down to the ocean, where it could be received as a courier carrying materials from the surface that help life take root.3 But of you think this might be too out there, look at it in terms of the planned ESA Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) and NASA Clipper missions for the mid-2020s. Both Cassini and Galileo data have shown that there’s a lot going on with the icy moons of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, with observations of phenomena like vapour plumes pointing to heightened chances for the formation and sustenance of alien life. If JUICE and Clipper have to teach us something useful about these moons, then they’ll have to go in prepared to study the right things, the things that matter. The Brown University paper has shown that salt is definitely one of them. It was accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets on December 4, 2017. Full text here.

Featured image: An artist’s impression of water vapour plumes erupting from Europa’s south pole, with Jupiter in the background. Credit: NASA-ESA.

1Venus has two continent-like areas , Ishtar and Aphrodite terra, and also displays tectonic activity in the form of mountains and volcanoes, e.g. But it does not have plate tectonics because its crust heals faster than it is damaged during tectonic activity.

2One of the more well known cryovolcanoes in the Solar System is Doom Mons on where else but Titan.

3 On Earth, tectonic plates that are pushed downward also take a bunch of carbon along, keeping the surface from accumulating the element in amounts that could be deleterious to life.

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