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An asymmetric distribution of lakes on Titan as a possible consequence of orbital forcing


A set of lakes filled or partially filled with liquid hydrocarbon and empty lake basins have been discovered in the high latitudes of Saturn’s moon Titan1. These features were mapped by the radar instrument on the Cassini orbiter1,2,3,4. Here we quantify the distribution of the lakes and basins, and show a pronounced hemispheric asymmetry in their occurrence. Whereas significant fractions of the northern high latitudes are covered by filled and empty lakes5, the same latitudes in the southern hemisphere are largely devoid of such features. We propose that in addition to known seasonal changes, the observed difference in lake distribution may be caused by an asymmetry in the seasons on Titan that results from the eccentricity of Saturn’s orbit around the Sun. We suggest that the consequent hemispheric difference in the balance between evaporation and precipitation could lead to an accumulation of lakes in one of Titan’s hemispheres. This effect would be modulated by, and reverse with, dynamical variations in the orbit. We propose that much like in the Earth’s glacial cycles, the resulting vigorous hydrologic cycle6 has a period of tens of thousands of years and leads to active geologic surface modification in the polar latitudes.

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Figure 1: Geographic distribution of lakes.
Figure 2: Lake latitudinal distribution.
Figure 3: Incoming solar radiation.

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We would like to thank E. Schaller, M. Brown, M. Richardson, C. Newman, T. Schneider and K. Lewis for helpful discussions. This work was partially supported by the Cassini Project. O.A. would like to thank R. Sari, Y. Erel and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, for hosting him while carrying out this work.

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O.A., A.G.H., J.I.L. and R.D.L. contributed data analysis and development of the hypothesis; M.D.A. and A.G.H. carried out the computation of the orbital elements; C.E. is the Cassini Radar instrument principal investigator.

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Correspondence to O. Aharonson.

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Aharonson, O., Hayes, A., Lunine, J. et al. An asymmetric distribution of lakes on Titan as a possible consequence of orbital forcing. Nature Geosci 2, 851–854 (2009).

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