Can heaving ice on Europa create enough heat for an ocean?

Long, linear cracks and ridges crisscross Europa's surface, interrupted by regions of disrupted terrain where the surface ice crust has been broken up and re-frozen into new patterns. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

Jupiter’s moon Europa is under a constant gravitational assault. As it orbits, its icy surface heaves and falls with the pull of Jupiter’s gravity. Scientists now believe that as it does so, it creates enough heat to support a salty ocean beneath the moon’s solid shell.

Now, experiments suggest that the process—called tidal dissipation—could create far more heat in Europa’s ice than scientists had previously thought. The findings could ultimately help researchers to better estimate the thickness of moon’s outer shell.

The largest Jovian moons—Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto—were first discovered by Galileo in the early 1600s. When NASA sent spacecraft to Jupiter in the 1970s and 1990s, those moons proved to be full of surprises.

“[Scientists] had expected to see cold, dead places, but right away they were blown away by their striking surfaces,” says Christine McCarthy, a faculty member at Columbia University who led the new research while a graduate student at Brown University. “There was clearly some sort of tectonic activity—things moving around and cracking. There were also places on Europa that look like melt-through or mushy ice.”

[More evidence there’s an ocean on Europa primed for life]

The only way to create enough heat for these active processes so far from the sun is through tidal dissipation. The effect is a bit like what happens when someone repeatedly bends a metal coat hanger, McCarthy says.

“If you bend it back and forth, you can feel it making heat at the junction. The way it does that is that internal defects within that metal are rubbing past each other, and it’s a similar process to how energy would be dissipated in ice.”

Europa's surface
A false color image shows Europa’s surprising surface. The inset includes regions where crustal plates appear to have broken up and rafted to new positions. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

However, the details of the process in ice aren’t very well understood, and modeling studies that try to capture those dynamics on Europa had yielded some puzzling results.

“People have been using simple mechanical models to describe the ice,” McCarthy says. While those calculations suggested liquid water under Europa’s surface, “they weren’t getting the kinds of heat fluxes that would create these tectonics. So we ran some experiments to try to understand this process better.”

[Does Europa’s ‘chaos terrain’ hide a salty ocean?]

Working with Reid Cooper, professor of earth, environmental, and planetary sciences at Brown, McCarthy loaded ice samples into a compression apparatus and subjected them to cyclical loads similar to those acting on Europa’s ice shell. When the loads are applied and released, the ice deforms and then rebounds to a certain extent. By measuring the lag time between the application of stress and the deformation of the ice, McCarthy could infer how much heat is generated.

The experiments yielded surprising results.

Modeling approaches had assumed that most of the heat generated by the process comes from friction at the boundaries between the ice grains. That would mean that the size of the grains influences the amount of heat generated. But McCarthy found similar results even when she substantially altered the grain size in her samples, suggesting that grain boundaries are not the primary heat-generators in the process.

The findings, published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters,  suggest that most of the heat actually comes from defects that form in the ice’s crystalline lattice as a result of deformation. Those defects create more heat than would be expected from the grain boundaries.

“Christine discovered that, relative to the models the community has been using, ice appears to be an order of magnitude more dissipative than people had thought,” Cooper says. More dissipation equals more heat, and that could have implications for Europa.

“The beauty of this is that once we get the physics right, it becomes wonderfully extrapolative,” Cooper says. “Those physics are first order in understanding the thickness of Europa’s shell. In turn, the thickness of the shell relative to the bulk chemistry of the moon is important in understanding the chemistry of that ocean. And if you’re looking for life, then the chemistry of the ocean is a big deal.”

The NASA Program in Planetary Geology and Geophysics and the NSF Program in Geophysics supported the study.

Source: Brown University

Scientists were surprised to find things moving around and cracking on Europa. The only way to create that much heat so far away from the sun is through tidal dissipation, says Christine McCarthy, which has a similar effect as repeatedly bending a metal coat hanger. “If you bend it back and forth, you can feel it making heat at the junction.” (Credit: