Geomorphic features typically associated with extreme rainfall events in terrestrial settings, including extensive fluvial features and alluvial fans, have been detected on Titan’s surface. Methane flow from precipitation on Titan can transport sediments and potentially erode the icy bedrock, but averaged precipitation rates from prior global-scale modelling are too low by at least an order of magnitude to initiate sediment transport of observed grain sizes at low latitudes. Here, we quantify the regional magnitude, frequency and variability of extreme rainfall events from simulations of present-day Titan, with a general circulation model coupled to a land model partially covered by wetlands reservoirs that can capture Titan’s regionally varying hydroclimate. We find that the most extreme storms tend to occur in the mid-latitudes, where observed alluvial fans are most concentrated. Storms capable of sediment transport and erosion occur at all latitudes in our simulations, consistent with the observed global coverage of fluvial features. Our results demonstrate the influential role of extreme precipitation in shaping Titan’s surface. We therefore suggest that, similarly to Earth but differently from Mars, active geomorphic work may be ongoing in the present climate on Titan.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $15.58 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Lorenz, R. et al. Fluvial channels on Titan: initial Cassini RADAR observations. Planet. Space Sci. 56, 1132–1144 (2008).
Langhans, M. et al. Titan’s fluvial valleys: morphology, distribution, and spectral properties. Planet. Space Sci. 60, 34–51 (2012).
Burr, D. M. et al. Fluvial features on Titan: insights from morphology and modeling. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 125, 299–321 (2013).
Moore, J. M., Howard, A. D. & Morgan, A. M. The landscape of Titan as witness to its climate evolution. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 2060–2077 (2014).
Birch, S., Hayes, A., Howard, A., Moore, J. & Radebaugh, J. Alluvial fan morphology, distribution and formation on Titan. Icarus 270, 238–247 (2016).
Radebaugh, J. et al. Alluvial and fluvial fans on Saturn’s moon Titan reveal processes, materials and regional geology. Geol. Soc. Lond. Spec. Pub. https://dx.doi.org/10.1144/SP440.6 (2016).
Cartwright, R. & Burr, D. Using synthetic aperture radar data of terrestrial analogs to test for alluvial fan formation mechanisms on Titan. Icarus 284, 183–205 (2017).
Hayes, A. G. The lakes and seas of Titan. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 44, 57–83 (2016).
Wood, C. et al. Impact craters on Titan. Icarus 206, 334–344 (2010).
Neish, C. & Lorenz, R. Elevation distribution of Titan’s craters suggests extensive wetlands. Icarus 228, 27–34 (2014).
Neish, C. et al. Fluvial erosion as a mechanism for crater modification on Titan. Icarus 270, 114–129 (2016).
Moore, J. M. & Howard, A. D. Large alluvial fans on Mars. J. Geophys. Res. 110, E04005 (2005).
Ferrier, K. L., Huppert, K. L. & Perron, J. T. Climatic control of bedrock river incision. Nature 496, 206–209 (2013).
Perron, J. T. Climate and the pace of erosional landscape evolution. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 45, 561–591 (2017).
Burr, D., Emery, J., Lorenz, R., Collins, G. & Carling, P. Sediment transport by liquid surficial flow: application to Titan. Icarus 181, 235–242 (2006).
Perron, J. T. et al. Valley formation and methane precipitation rates on Titan. J. Geophys. Res. 111, E11001 (2006).
Jaumann, R. et al. Fluvial erosion and post-erosional processes on Titan. Icarus 197, 526–538 (2008).
Litwin, K. L., Zygielbaum, B. R., Polito, P. J., Sklar, L. S. & Collins, G. C. Influence of temperature, composition, and grain size on the tensile failure of water ice: implications for erosion on Titan. J. Geophys. Res. 117, E08013 (2012).
Black, B. A., Perron, J. T., Burr, D. M. & Drummond, S. A. Estimating erosional exhumation on Titan from drainage network morphology. J. Geophys. Res. 117, E08006 (2012).
Blair, T. C. & McPherson, J. G. Geomorphology of Desert EnvironmentsCh. 14, 354–402 (Springer, 1994).
Leier, A. L., DeCelles, P. G. & Pelletier, J. D. Mountains, monsoons, and megafans. Geology 33, 289–292 (2005).
Molnar, P., Anderson, R. S., Kier, G. & Rose, J. Relationships among probability distributions of stream discharges in floods, climate, bed load transport, and river incision. J. Geophys. Res. 111, F02001 (2006).
DiBiase, R. A. & Whipple, K. X. The influence of erosion thresholds and runoff variability on the relationships among topography, climate, and erosion rate. J. Geophys. Res. 116, F04036 (2011).
Borga, M., Stoffel, M., Marchi, L., Marra, F. & Jakob, M. Hydrogeomorphic response to extreme rainfall in headwater systems: flash floods and debris flows. J. Hydrol. 518, 194–205 (2014).
D’Arcy, M. K., Whittaker, A. C. & Roda Boluda, D. C. Glacial–interglacial climate changes recorded by debris flow deposits, Owens Valley, California. Quat. Sci. Rev. 169, 288–311 (2017).
Gibling, M., Tandon, S., Sinha, R. & Jain, M. Discontinuity-bounded alluvial sequences of the southern Gangetic Plains, India: aggradation and degradation in response to monsoonal strength. J. Sediment. Res. 75, 369–385 (2005).
Lorenz, R. D., Griffith, C. A., Lunine, J. I., McKay, C. P. & Renn, N. O. Convective plumes and the scarcity of Titan’s clouds. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L01201 (2005).
Barth, E. L. & Rafkin, S. C. Convective cloud heights as a diagnostic for methane environment on Titan. Icarus 206, 467–484 (2010).
Rafkin, S. C. & Barth, E. Environmental control of deep convective clouds on Titan: the combined effect of CAPE and wind shear on storm dynamics, morphology, and lifetime. J. Geophys. Res. 120, 739–759 (2015).
Mitchell, J. L., Pierrehumbert, R. T., Frierson, D. M. & Caballero, R. The dynamics behind Titan’s methane clouds. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 18421–18426 (2006).
Schneider, T., Graves, S., Schaller, E. & Brown, M. Polar methane accumulation and rainstorms on Titan from simulations of the methane cycle. Nature 481, 58–61 (2012).
Lora, J. M., Lunine, J. I. & Russell, J. L. GCM simulations of Titan’s middle and lower atmosphere and comparison to observations. Icarus 250, 516–528 (2015).
Newman, C., Richardson, M., Lian, Y. & Lee, C. Simulating Titan’s methane cycle with the TitanWRF General Circulation Model. Icarus 267, 106–134 (2016).
Mitchell, J. L. & Lora, J. M. The climate of Titan. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 44, 353–380 (2016).
Poggiali, V. et al. Liquid-filled canyons on Titan. Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 7887–7894 (2016).
Arzani, N. Catchment lithology as a major control on alluvial megafan development, Kohrud Mountain range, central Iran. Earth Surf. Process. Landf. 37, 726–740 (2012).
Lora, J. M. & Mitchell, J. L. Titan’s asymmetric lake distribution mediated by methane transport due to atmospheric eddies. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 6213–6220 (2015).
Rossi, M. W., Whipple, K. X. & Vivoni, E. R. Precipitation and evapotranspiration controls on daily runoff variability in the contiguous United States and Puerto Rico. J. Geophys. Res. 121, 128–145 (2016).
Mather, A., Stokes, M. & Whitfield, E. River terraces and alluvial fans: the case for an integrated Quaternary fluvial archive. Quat. Sci. Rev. 166, 74–90 (2017).
Beaty, C. B. Age and estimated rate of accumulation of an alluvial fan, White Mountains, California, USA. Am. J. Sci. 268, 50–77 (1970).
Burr, D. M., Drummond, S. A., Cartwright, R., Black, B. A. & Perron, J. T. Morphology of fluvial networks on Titan: evidence for structural control. Icarus 226, 742–759 (2013).
Wall, S. et al. Active shoreline of Ontario Lacus, Titan: a morphological study of the lake and its surroundings. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L05202 (2010).
Turtle, E. et al. Rapid and extensive surface changes near Titan’s equator: evidence of April showers. Science 331, 1414–1417 (2011).
Lora, J., Lunine, J., Russell, J. & Hayes, A. Simulations of Titan’s paleoclimate. Icarus 243, 264–273 (2014).
Howard, A. D., Breton, S. & Moore, J. M. Formation of gravel pavements during fluvial erosion as an explanation for persistence of ancient cratered terrain on Titan and Mars. Icarus 270, 100–113 (2016).
Griffith, C. A., McKay, C. P. & Ferri, F. Titan’s tropical storms in an evolving atmosphere. Astrophys. J. Lett. 687, L41 (2008).
Griffith, C. A. et al. Characterization of clouds in Titan’s tropical atmosphere. Astrophys. J. Lett. 702, L105 (2009).
Schaller, E., Roe, H., Schneider, T. & Brown, M. Storms in the tropics of Titan. Nature 460, 873–875 (2009).
Cornet, T. et al. Dissolution on Titan and on Earth: toward the age of Titan’s karstic landscapes. J. Geophys. Res. 120, 1044–1074 (2015).
Birch, S. et al. Geomorphologic mapping of Titan’s polar terrains: constraining surface processes and landscape evolution. Icarus 282, 214–236 (2017).
Lora, J. M. & Ádámkovics, M. The near-surface methane humidity on Titan. Icarus 286, 270–279 (2017).
Roe, H., Bouchez, A., Trujillo, C., Schaller, E. & Brown, M. Discovery of temperate latitude clouds on Titan. Astrophys. J. Lett. 618, L49 (2005).
Bouchez, A. & Brown, M. Statistics of Titan’s south polar tropospheric clouds. Astrophys. J. Lett. 618, L53 (2005).
Schaller, E. L., Brown, M. E., Roe, H. G. & Bouchez, A. H. A large cloud outburst at Titan’s south pole. Icarus 182, 224–229 (2006).
Rodriguez, S. et al. Titan’s cloud seasonal activity from winter to spring with Cassini/VIMS. Icarus 216, 89–110 (2011).
Turtle, E. et al. Seasonal evolution in the behavior of Titan’s clouds from Cassini ISS, 2004–2017. In Euro. Planet. Sci. Cong. 2017 Vol. 11, EPSC2017–352–1 (European Planetary Science Congress, 2017).
This work was supported by NASA Cassini Data Analysis and Participating Scientists (CDAPS) Program grant NNX16AI44G. We are grateful to E. Turtle and the Cassini ISS team for sharing unpublished cloud observation data to include in our figures.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Faulk, S., Mitchell, J., Moon, S. et al. Regional patterns of extreme precipitation on Titan consistent with observed alluvial fan distribution. Nature Geosci 10, 827–831 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo3043
Titan’s climate patterns and surface methane distribution due to the coupling of land hydrology and atmosphere
Nature Astronomy (2020)
Spatiotemporal variations in extreme precipitation and their potential driving factors in non-monsoon regions of China during 1961–2017
Environmental Research Letters (2019)
Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets (2019)