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Venus’s atmospheric nitrogen explained by ancient plate tectonics

Abstract

Venus is the least understood of the terrestrial planets. Despite broad similarities to the Earth in mass and size, Venus has no evidence of plate tectonics recorded on its young surface, and Venus’s atmosphere is strikingly different. Numerical experiments of long-term planetary evolution have sought to understand Venus’s thermal–tectonic history with indeterminate results. However, Venus’s atmosphere is linked to interior evolution and can be used as a diagnostic to constrain planetary evolution. Here we compare the present-day Venusian atmosphere to atmospheres generated by long-term thermal–chemical–tectonic evolution models. We find that a continuous single-plate stagnant lid regime operating since antiquity (magma ocean solidification) explains neither the present-day observed atmospheric abundances of N2 and CO2, nor the surface pressure. Instead, the Venusian atmosphere requires volcanic outgassing in an early phase of plate-tectonic-like activity. Our findings indicate that Venus’s atmosphere results from a great climatic–tectonic transition, from an early phase of active lid tectonics that lasted for at least 1 Gyr, followed by the current stagnant lid-like mode of reduced outgassing rates.

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Fig. 1: Modelled cumulative atmospheric mass of outgassed N2 and CO2 over time for an active and stagnant lid Venus.
Fig. 2: Surface pressures (Ps) and cumulative extrusive melt produced as a function of time for active and stagnant lid tectonic states.
Fig. 3: Atmospheric observables compared to simulation of active and stagnant lid tectonic states.
Fig. 4: Outgassed N2 and CO2 abundances as driven by tectonic regime change at 100 Myr and 1 Gyr.

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Data availability

Data used to generate Figs. 14 are available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7570178.

Code availability

MATLAB is a commercial code. The C parametrized thermal evolution code used here and described in the Methods sections, in addition to the MATLAB analysis code(s), are available from the authors upon reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by funds provided by A.J.E., Brown University and NASA’s Solar System Workings programme (grant number 80NSSC23K0167), which partially funded M.B.W. Additional support was provided through the USRA/LPI Urey fellowship for M.B.W.

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M.B.W., A.J.E. and A.V.J. conceptualized the project. A.J.E., M.B.W. and D.E.I. devised the methodology and M.B.W. and A.J.E. performed the investigation. Visualization was done by M.B.W. Funding acquisition was handled by M.B.W. and A.J.E. All authors contributed to the writing and editing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Matthew B. Weller.

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Weller, M.B., Evans, A.J., Ibarra, D.E. et al. Venus’s atmospheric nitrogen explained by ancient plate tectonics. Nat Astron 7, 1436–1444 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-023-02102-w

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