Elvira Mulyukova and David Bercovici
All the rocky planets in our solar system, including the Earth, initially formed much hotter than their surroundings and have since been cooling to space for billions of years. The resulting heat released from planetary interiors powers convective flow in the mantle. The mantle is often the most voluminous and/or stiffest part of a planet and therefore acts as the bottleneck for heat transport, thus dictating the rate at which a planet cools. Mantle flow drives geological activity that modifies planetary surfaces through processes such as volcanism, orogenesis, and rifting. On Earth, the major convective currents in the mantle are identified as hot upwellings such as mantle plumes, cold sinking slabs, and the motion of tectonic plates at the surface. On other terrestrial planets in our solar system, mantle flow is mostly concealed beneath a rocky surface that remains stagnant for relatively long periods. Even though such planetary surfaces do not participate in convective circulation, they deform in response to the underlying mantle currents, forming geological features such as coronae, volcanic lava flows, and wrinkle ridges. Moreover, the exchange of material between the interior and surface, for example through melting and volcanism, is a consequence of mantle circulation and continuously modifies the composition of the mantle and the overlying crust. Mantle convection governs the geological activity and the thermal and chemical evolution of terrestrial planets and understanding the physical processes of convection helps us reconstruct histories of planets over billions of years after their formation.
Paul K. Byrne
Mercury, like its inner Solar System planetary neighbors Venus, Mars, and the Moon, shows no evidence of having ever undergone plate tectonics. Nonetheless, the innermost planet boasts a long record of tectonic deformation. The most prominent manifestation of this history is a population of large scarps that occurs throughout the planet’s cratered terrains; some of these scarps rise kilometers above the surrounding landscape. Mercury’s smooth plains, the majority of which are volcanic and occupy over a quarter of the planet, abound with low-relief ridges. The scarps and ridges are underlain by thrust faults and point to a tectonic history dominated by crustal shortening. At least some of the shortening strain recorded by the ridges may reflect subsidence of the lavas in which they formed, but the widespread distribution of scarps attests to a planetwide process of global contraction, wherein Mercury experienced a reduction in volume as its interior cooled through time.
The onset of this phenomenon placed the lithosphere into a net state of horizontal compression, and accounts for why Mercury hosts only a few instances of extensional structures. These landforms, shallow troughs that form complex networks, occur almost wholly in volcanically flooded impact craters and basins and developed as those lavas cooled and thermally contracted. Tellingly, widespread volcanism on Mercury ended at around the same time the population of scarps began to form. Explosive volcanism endured beyond this point, but almost exclusively at sites of lithospheric weakness, where large faults penetrate deep into the interior. These observations are consistent with decades-old predictions that global contraction would shut off major volcanic activity, and illustrate how closely Mercury’s tectonic and volcanic histories are intertwined.
The tectonic character of Mercury is thus one of sustained crustal shortening with only localized extension, which started almost four billion years ago and extends into the geologically recent past. This character somewhat resembles that of the Moon, but differs substantially from those of Earth, Venus, or Mars. Mercury may represent how small rocky planets tectonically evolve and could provide a basis for understanding the geological properties of similarly small worlds in orbit around other stars.