Estimating Venusian thermal conditions using multiring basin morphology

Abstract

Despite their critical roles in Venus’s geological evolution, neither heat flow through the Venusian lithosphere nor the corresponding tectonic regime in its geological past is well constrained. However, because impact basin formation is sensitive to thermal conditions at depth, studying large basin development can provide crucial insights into the past geological conditions of a planet. Here we model the formation of Mead Basin, the largest impact structure on Venus, and its two ring faults at approximately 190 km and 270 km diameter, to determine the thermal conditions in Venus’s crust and upper mantle at the time of impact. For present-day surface temperatures, we find that lithospheric thermal gradients no higher than 14 K km−1, corresponding to surface heat fluxes of 28 mW m−2, are required to reproduce the morphology of Mead Basin. These values are less than half of what is expected for an active lid planet, implying that Venus may have had a stagnant lid when Mead Basin formed, between 0.3 and 1 billion years ago.

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Fig. 1: Time-series of best-fit simulation of Mead Basin ring formation during crater collapse.
Fig. 2: Effect of thermal gradient on basin ring location and spacing for basins formed with a 36-km diameter projectile striking a 30-km-thick basaltic crust.

Data availability

Model input files and outputs are uploaded to the Harvard Dataverse and are available at https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/HGVPRR.

Code availability

iSALE is not currently available to the public and is accessible to the impact community on a case-by-case basis for non-commercial use. Scientists interested in using or developing iSALE can reference https://isale-code.github.io/ for a description and application requirements.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the developers of iSALE and pySALEplot, including G. Collins, K. Wünnemann, D. Elbeshausen, T. Davison, B. Ivanov and J. Melosh.

Author information

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Authors

Contributions

E.B. and B.C.J. conceptualized the project. E.B. ran the computer models with oversight of B.C.J. All authors contributed to the preparation of the manuscript and the conclusions presented therein.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to E. Bjonnes.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Astronomy thanks Walter Kiefer and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Magellan SAR image of Mead Basin.

Radar-bright regions highlight faults surrounding the crater, with the main bright faults being the circumferential ring faults. Note the terrace zone comprised of extensive small-scale faults in between the main ring faults. Image courtesy of NASA JPL, Magellan Mission, Image PIA00148.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Thermal profile and strength profiles for combinations of crustal thicknesses and thermal gradients for models with 723 K surface temperature and 30 km crust.

a, Thermal profile. b, Strength profile. The different crustal thicknesses are highlighted by the dashed lines in b. The thermal profiles are the same regardless of the crustal thickness used, but the strength profiles show a discontinuity associated with the compositional difference.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Thermal profile and strength profiles for combinations of crustal thicknesses and thermal gradients for models with 350 K surface temperature and 30 km crust.

a, Thermal profile. b, Strength profile. The different crustal thicknesses are highlighted by the dashed lines in b. The thermal profiles are the same regardless of the crustal thickness used, but the strength profiles show a discontinuity associated with the compositional difference.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Influence of surface temperature and thermal gradient on ring fault spacing.

af, Inner and outer ring fault locations are shown for models with surface temperatures of 723 K (red) and 350 K (blue) for combinations of projectile sizes and crustal thicknesses. Ring locations are binned according to the thermal gradient tested (shown along the x-axis). Projectile size and crustal thickness are noted in the upper left corner of each panel. Data for each surface temperature are offset for clarity. Inner ring fault locations, defined as the innermost fault intersecting the basin floor or along the basin wall, are marked by circles; outer ring fault locations, defined as the outermost fault that intersects the surface at or beyond the basin rim, are marked by squares. A line spans the range of fault diameters for simulations with both inner and outer rings. Distances shown have an uncertainty of approximately ±5 km.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Effect of thermal gradient on basin ring location and spacing for basins formed with a 24-km-diameter projectile, 723 K surface temperature and 30 km crust.

af, A series of 3× vertically exaggerated plots highlighting ring fault locations and the associated displacement. Vertical grey bars mark the current surface locations of Mead Basin’s ring faults17 and are intended to guide the eye. All plots are taken 500 s after impact. Tracer lines are coloured according to composition, with black lines representing a basalt crust and blue lines representing a dunite mantle. Tracers lines are initially horizontal and spaced 1 km apart.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Effect of thermal gradient on basin ring location and spacing for basins formed with a 30-km-diameter projectile, 723 K surface temperature and 30 km crust.

af, A series of 3× vertically exaggerated plots highlighting ring fault locations and the associated displacement. Vertical grey bars mark the current surface locations of Mead Basin’s ring faults17 and are intended to guide the eye. All plots are taken 500 s after impact. Tracer lines are coloured according to composition, with black lines representing a basalt crust and blue lines representing a dunite mantle. Tracers lines are initially horizontal and spaced 1 km apart.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Effect of crustal thickness on material strength.

Material strength is plotted for two thermal gradients (6 K km−1 and 14 K km−1), showing how the depth of transition from a basaltic crust to a dunite mantle affects the target strength. Surface temperature is 723 K for each case.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Effect of thermal gradient on basin ring location and spacing for basins formed with a 36-km-diameter projectile striking a 20-km-thick basaltic crust on a target with 723 K surface temperature.

af, A series of 3× vertically exaggerated plot highlighting ring fault locations and the associated displacement. Vertical grey bars mark the current surface locations of Mead Basin’s ring faults17 and are intended to guide the eye. All plots are taken 500 s after impact. Tracer lines are coloured according to composition, with black lines representing a basalt crust and blue lines representing a dunite mantle. Tracers lines are initially horizontal and spaced 1 km apart.

Extended Data Fig. 9 Effect of thermal gradient on basin ring location and spacing for basins formed with a 36-km-diameter projectile, 350 K surface temperature and 30 km crust.

af, A series of 3× vertically exaggerated plot highlighting ring fault locations and the associated displacement. Vertical grey bars mark the current surface locations of Mead Basin’s ring faults17 and are intended to guide the eye. All plots are taken 500 s after impact. Tracer lines are coloured according to composition, with black lines representing a basalt crust and blue lines representing a dunite mantle. Tracers lines are initially horizontal and spaced 1 km apart.

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Bjonnes, E., Johnson, B.C. & Evans, A.J. Estimating Venusian thermal conditions using multiring basin morphology. Nat Astron (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-020-01289-6

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