Large tectonic landforms on the surface of Mercury, consistent with significant contraction of the planet, were revealed by the flybys of Mariner 10 in the mid-1970s1. The MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) mission confirmed that the planet’s past 4 billion years of tectonic history have been dominated by contraction expressed by lobate fault scarps that are hundreds of kilometres long2,3,4,5. Here we report the discovery of small thrust fault scarps in images from the low-altitude campaign at the end of the MESSENGER mission that are orders of magnitude smaller than the large-scale lobate scarps. These small scarps have tens of metres of relief, are only kilometres in length and are comparable in scale to small young scarps on the Moon6,7,8. Their small-scale, pristine appearance, crosscutting of impact craters and association with small graben all indicate an age of less than 50 Myr. We propose that these scarps are the smallest members of a continuum in scale of thrust fault scarps on Mercury. The young age of the small scarps, along with evidence for recent activity on large-scale scarps, suggests that Mercury is tectonically active today and implies a prolonged slow cooling of the planet’s interior.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
Communications Earth & Environment Open Access 14 January 2021
Space Science Reviews Open Access 17 June 2020
Space Science Reviews Open Access 02 June 2020
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $9.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Watters, T. R., Robinson, M. S., Bina, C. R. & Spudis, P. D. Thrust faults and the global contraction of Mercury. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L04071 (2004).
Solomon, S. C. et al. Return to Mercury: a global perspective on MESSENGER’s first Mercury flyby. Science 321, 59–62 (2008).
Watters, T. R. et al. The tectonics of Mercury: the view after MESSENGER’s first flyby. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 285, 283–296 (2009).
Byrne, P. K. et al. Mercury: global tectonics on a contracting planet. Nat. Geosci. 7, 301–307 (2014).
Watters, T. R. et al. Distribution of large-scale contractional tectonic landforms on Mercury: implications for the origin of global stresses. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 3755–3763 (2015).
Watters, T. R. et al. Evidence of recent thrust faulting on the Moon revealed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera. Science 329, 936–220 (2010).
Banks, M. E. et al. Morphological analysis of lobate scarps on the Moon using data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. J. Geophys. Res. 117, E00H11 (2012).
Watters, T. R. et al. Global thrust faulting on the Moon and the influence of tidal stresses. Geology 43, 851–854 (2015).
Watters, T. R. & Johnson, C. L. in Planetary Tectonics (eds Watters, T. R. & Schultz, R. A.) 121–182 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010).
Williams, N. R. et al. Fault dislocation modeled structure of lobate scarps from lunar reconnaissance orbiter camera digital terrain models. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 224–233 (2013).
Watters, T. R., Schultz, R. A., Robinson, M. S. & Cook, A. C. The mechanical and thermal structure of Mercury’s early lithosphere. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, 37-1–37-4 (2002).
Watters, T. R., Weber, R. C., Collins, G. C. & Johnson, C. L. The current stress state of the Moon: implications for lunar seismic activity. Lunar Planet. Sci. 47, 1642 (2016).
Head, J. W. et al. Flood volcanism in the northern high latitudes of Mercury revealed by MESSENGER. Science 333, 1853–1856 (2011).
Zuber, M. T. et al. Topography of the northern hemisphere of Mercury from MESSENGER laser altimetry. Science 336, 217–220 (2012).
Cowie, P. A. & Scholz, C. H. Displacement-length scaling relationship for faults: data synthesis and discussion. J. Struct. Geol. 14, 1149–1156 (1992).
Banks, M. E. et al. Displacement–length relationship of thrust faults associated with lobate scarps on the Moon. Lunar Planet. Sci. 44, 3042 (2013).
Watters, T. R. et al. Distribution of prominent lobate scarps on Mercury: contribution to global radial contraction. Lunar Planet. Sci. 44, 2213 (2013).
Banks, M. E. et al. Duration of activity on lobate-scarp thrust faults on Mercury. J. Geophys. Res. 120, 1751–1762 (2015).
Trask, N. J. Geologic comparison of mare materials in the lunar equatorial belt, including Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 landing sites. US Geol. Survey Prof. Pap. 750-D D138-D144 (1971).
Moore, H. J., Boyce, J. M. & Hahn, D. A. Small impact craters in the lunar regolith—their morphologies relative ages and rates of formation. Moon Planets 23, 231–252 (1980).
Stöffler, D. & Ryder, G. Stratigraphy and isotope ages of lunar geologic units: chronological standard for the inner solar system. Space Sci. Rev. 96, 9–54 (2001).
Braden, S. E. & Robinson, M. S. Relative rates of optical maturation of regolith on Mercury and the Moon. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 1903–1914 (2013).
Banks, M. E. et al. Revised age constraints for Mercury’s Kuiperian and Mansurian systems. Lunar Planet. Sci. 47, 2943 (2016).
Watters, T. R. et al. Recent extensional tectonics on the Moon revealed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera. Nat. Geosci. 5, 181–185 (2012).
Arvidson, R., Drozd, R. J., Hohenberg, C. M., Morgan, C. J. & Poupeau, G. Horizontal transport of the regolith, modification of features, and erosion rates on the lunar surface. The Moon 13, 67–79 (1975).
Marchi, S. et al. Global resurfacing of Mercury 4.0–4.1 billion years ago by heavy bombardment and volcanism. Nature 499, 59–61 (2013).
Gault, D. E. Some comparisons of impact craters on Mercury and the Moon. J. Geophys. Res. 80, 2444–2460 (1975).
Cintala, M. J. Impact-induced thermal effects in the lunar and mercurian regoliths. J. Geophys. Res. 97, 947–973 (1992).
Le Feuvre, M. & Wieczorek, M. A. Nonuniform cratering of the Moon and a revised crater chronology of the inner Solar System. Icarus 214, 1–20 (2011).
Spudis, P. D. & Guest, J. E. in Mercury (eds Vilas, F., Chapman, C. R. & Matthews, M. S.) 118–164 (Arizona Univ. Press, 1988).
Tosi, N., Grott, M., Plesa, A.-C. & Breuer, D. Thermochemical evolution of Mercury’s interior. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 2474–2487 (2013).
Johnson, C. L. Low-altitude magnetic field measurements by MESSENGER reveal Mercury’s ancient crustal field. Science 348, 892–895 (2015).
We thank P. D. Spudis and A. Nahm for helpful comments and suggestions that greatly improved the manuscript. We also thank C. Johnson for valuable discussions. We are grateful to S. C. Solomon, the MDIS team, and the MESSENGER engineers, and technical support personnel at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. This work is also supported by NASA grant NNX07AR60G.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Watters, T., Daud, K., Banks, M. et al. Recent tectonic activity on Mercury revealed by small thrust fault scarps. Nature Geosci 9, 743–747 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2814
This article is cited by
Communications Earth & Environment (2021)
Space Science Reviews (2020)
Space Science Reviews (2020)