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Observed glacier and volatile distribution on Pluto from atmosphere–topography processes

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Pluto has a variety of surface frosts and landforms as well as a complex atmosphere1. There is ongoing geological activity related to the massive Sputnik Planitia glacier, mostly made of nitrogen (N2) ice mixed with solid carbon monoxide and methane2, covering the 4-kilometre-deep, 1,000-kilometre-wide basin of Sputnik Planitia1,3 near the anti-Charon point. The glacier has been suggested to arise from a source region connected to the deep interior, or from a sink collecting the volatiles released planetwide1. Thin deposits of N2 frost, however, were also detected at mid-northern latitudes and methane ice was observed to cover most of Pluto except for the darker, frost-free equatorial regions2. Here we report numerical simulations of the evolution of N2, methane and carbon monoxide on Pluto over thousands of years. The model predicts N2 ice accumulation in the deepest low-latitude basin and the threefold increase in atmospheric pressure that has been observed to occur since 19884,5,6. This points to atmospheric–topographic processes as the origin of Sputnik Planitia’s N2 glacier. The same simulations also reproduce the observed quantities of volatiles in the atmosphere and show frosts of methane, and sometimes N2, that seasonally cover the mid- and high latitudes, explaining the bright northern polar cap reported in the 1990s7,8 and the observed ice distribution in 20152. The model also predicts that most of these seasonal frosts should disappear in the next decade.

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Figure 1: Surface maps from the reference simulation with TI = 800 J s−1/2 m−2 K−1.
Figure 2: Modelled annual evolution of atmospheric volatiles.
Figure 3: Comparison between the observed1,2 and modelled ice distributions in July 2015 with a slightly brighter and colder methane frost than in Figs 1 and 2.

Change history

  • 30 November 2016

    ‘Sputnik Planum’ was replaced with ‘Sputnik Planitia’ throughout, and ref. 13 was updated.


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We thank the New Horizons team for this successful mission. We also thank E. Lellouch, E. Millour and M. J. Wolff for comments on the manuscript. We are grateful to M. Vangvichith for her contribution to an early version of the model, and to the Institut de Formation Doctorale for supporting this work.

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Authors and Affiliations



F.F. and T.B. designed and developed the model. T.B. performed the simulations. Both authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to François Forget.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Mars in mid-southern spring.

This composite image shows the 7-km-deep, 2,000-km-wide deep Hellas Planitia impact basin covered by seasonal CO2 ice. The physical processes that favour the condensation of the CO2 atmosphere at the bottom of the Hellas basin is the same as for Pluto’s N2 atmosphere in Sputnik Planitia. In both basins, surface pressures are larger than in the surrounding regions and condensation temperatures Tc are higher. This corresponds to a stronger thermal infrared cooling (proportional to Tc4), which is balanced by a proportionally more intense condensation rate (latent heat). Images obtained by the Mars Global Surveyor Mars Orbiter Camera in November 2006, at solar longitude (the Mars–Sun angle, measured from the Northern Hemisphere spring equinox where Ls = 0°) Ls = 137° (image credit NASA/JPL/MSSS;

Extended Data Figure 2 Evolution of surface pressure during the first 15,000 Earth years of the reference simulation (same as Fig. 1).

At least 10,000 Earth years are necessary to equilibrate the N2 ice in the basin and obtain a year-to-year repetitive pattern of surface pressure.

Extended Data Figure 3 Latitudinal distribution of CH4 ice over three Pluto years in our reference simulation, as in Figs 1 and 2.

The colour scale measures methane ice on the surface, in kilograms per square metre. The time axis starts at the solar longitude Ls = 0°. In addition to the permanent methane ice reservoir in the Sputnik Planitia basin, the methane cycle exhibits seasonal polar frosts of methane. The southern polar frosts remain in place longer than the northern frost, owing to the longer duration of the southern winter season. At mid-northern latitudes, the Sputnik Planitia basin is a permanent reservoir of CH4 ice. CH4 frost preferentially accumulates at the poles during autumn and winter, but better resists sublimation at low latitudes during late spring, especially in the southern hemisphere.

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Bertrand, T., Forget, F. Observed glacier and volatile distribution on Pluto from atmosphere–topography processes. Nature 540, 86–89 (2016).

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