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Earth-like lithospheric thickness and heat flow on Venus consistent with active rifting


Venus is Earth’s twin in size and radiogenic heat budget, yet it remains unclear how Venus loses its heat absent plate tectonics. Most Venusian stagnant-lid models predict a thick lithosphere with heat flow about half that of Earth’s mobile-lid regime. Here we estimate elastic lithospheric thickness at 75 locations on Venus using topographic flexure at 65 coronae—quasi-circular volcano-tectonic features—determined from Magellan altimetry data. We find an average thickness at coronae of 11 ± 7 km. This implies an average heat flow of 101 ± 88 mW m−2, higher than Earth’ s average but similar to terrestrial values in actively extending areas. For some locations, such as the Parga Chasma rift zone, we estimate heat flow exceeding 75 mW m−2. Combined with a low-resolution map of global elastic thickness, this suggests that coronae typically form on thin lithosphere, instead of locally thinning the lithosphere via plume heating, and that most regions of low elastic thickness are best explained by high heat flow rather than crustal compensation. Our analysis identifies likely areas of active extension and suggests that Venus has Earth-like lithospheric thickness and global heat flow ranges. Together with the planet’s geologic history, our findings support a squishy-lid convective regime that relies on plumes, intrusive magmatism and delamination to increase heat flow.

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Fig. 1: Hepat Corona exhibits double fracture annulae and a topographic rim that is well fit by an elastic flexure model.
Fig. 2: Local and regional heat flow values mostly agree and show concentrations of high heat flow in some areas.
Fig. 3: Heat flow estimates are mostly greater than stagnant-lid values and overlap with terrestrial values, including those for active regions.

Data availability

All Magellan data are available in the Planetary Data System. The global topography is at The global synthetic aperture radar map is at Supplementary Tables 1–3 are available at The global Venus elastic thickness map from ref. 30 is available at

Code availability

ARCGIS and MATLAB are commercial codes. MATLAB analysis code is available from the authors on request.


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S.E.S. thanks past undergraduate students who contributed to the early stages of this work: V. Auerbach, C. Miao and E. Tucker. We thank F. Bilotte for providing his rift map. A portion of this work was performed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under contract with NASA. This work was supported by NASA’s Solar System Workings programme (grant #811073., which funded S.E.S., J.G.O. and C.O.

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Authors and Affiliations



S.E.S., J.G.O. and C.O. conceptualized the project. J.G.O., C.O. and S.E.S. devised the methodology. C.O., S.E.S. and J.G.O. carried out the investigation. Visualization was done by C.O., S.E.S. and J.G.O. Funding acquisition was handled by S.E.S. S.E.S. was in charge of project administration and supervision. The original draft was written by S.E.S., C.O. and J.G.O. It was reviewed and edited by S.E.S., C.O. and J.G.O.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Suzanne E. Smrekar.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature Geoscience thanks Shijie Zhong and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editor: Tamara Goldin, in collaboration with the Nature Geoscience team.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Conversion of elastic to mechanical thickness reallocates stress from an idealized elastic plate to include elastic and viscous support.

(a) In the elastic plate model, the stress difference within the plate (purple curve) varies linearly with depth. This example uses Te = 10 km, strain rate = 10 − 16 s − 1, and k = 50 × 10 − 8 m − 1. (b) In a real plate, the maximum stress difference is limited by brittle failure and ductile flow at the top and bottom, respectively. We calculate the Tm required to produce the same total moment (purple shading) in both models. In this example Tm is ~50% > Te. We assume that the bottom of the plate has the temperature required for ductile flow at stress differences ≤50 MPa (that is, ~1013 K for dry olivine). We show how the mechanical thickness (c) and surface heat flow (d) vary as functions of elastic thickness and plate curvature. At a higher strain rate, the ductile lithosphere supports stress to a greater temperature, on the order of roughly 50 K per order of magnitude increase in strain rate. As the strain rate increases, the predicted thermal gradient and surface heat flow thus both increase.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Varying parameters in the ductile flow law affect the conversion from elastic thickness to mechanical thickness and heat flow.

We use our nominal rheological parameters for dry olivine and calculated Tm and Fs for Te = 10 km and κ = 50 × 10−8 m−1. In each panel, the dashed, magenta lines show the nominal values of each parameter. We separately vary our assumed values of Young’s modulus (a, b), the temperature at the base of the lithosphere (c, d), the cutoff strength (that is, the maximum deviatoric stress at the base of the lithosphere) (e, f), and the strain rate (g, h). For the first three rows (af), we adjust \({\dot{\epsilon}}\)/A to hold the other two parameters constant. For the bottom row (g-h), we hold A constant and recalculate the basal temperature associated with Δσ = 50 MPa. We note that holding some parameters constant while changing others may not be fully realistic.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Te from local flexure is compared to the Te map from admittance within a circle representing the local gravity resolution.

The numerical values in white are Te from flexure and are overlayed on top of the map of Te values from Anderson & Smrekar30. The local Te value at Habonde Corona (a) was in ‘good’ agreement with regional Te values; Seia Corona (b) has ‘reasonable’ agreement, Corona c208 (c) exhibits no agreement, and Bhumidevi Corona (d) includes a region where no regional Te could be obtained due to a large number of pixels with no reported Te values.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Table 1

Derived parameters for coronae in this study and ref. 32. Te (elastic thickness), Source (method in this study, MCMC or LM, or from O&S (O’Rourke and Smrekar 32), Lat (latitude), Lon (longitude), Diameter, Upper Te (maximum value within error), Lower Te (minimum values within error), Tm (mechanical thickness), Kappa (curvature), dT/dz (thermal gradient), Fs (heat flow), Wo (vertical offset), Sr (regional slope), GTR in this area39, Agree (with Te from ref. 30) where 0 is unconstrained, 1 is none, 2 is reasonable and 3 is good (see main text), Topo (class as defined in ref. 50). Additional LM results are given in Supplementary Table 2.

Supplementary Table 2

Location and Te values for coronae from previous studies, plus additional Te values derived using LM method from this study.

Supplementary Table 3

Derived parameters for rifts from this study. Parameters as defined in Supplementary Table 1.

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Smrekar, S.E., Ostberg, C. & O’Rourke, J.G. Earth-like lithospheric thickness and heat flow on Venus consistent with active rifting. Nat. Geosci. 16, 13–18 (2023).

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