What Is an Ice Volcano?

Pluto's Wright Mons cryovolcano. It's named after the Wright Brothers. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Try saying the words ice volcano without smiling a little at the wonders of the universe and how fortunate we are to live in an age of celestial discovery. The simple knowledge that such a thing as an ice volcano, or cryovolcano, exists would be reward enough, but it's doubly exciting to realize that such geologic marvels are now common knowledge, and that our children will no more blink in astonishment at the concept than the older generation does at a standard-issue lava-spewing volcano in the Pacific.

First observed in 1989 by the Voyager 2 spacecraft as it passed Triton, Neptune's largest moon, cryovolcanoes are again in the news because of data recently returned from the New Horizons spacecraft. Possible ice volcanoes—which are exactly what the name sounds like—have been discovered on Pluto, and they might have been active recently, in geologic terms.


Think back to the classroom volcano diorama you made in grade school. Little mountain, maybe trees and plastic dinosaurs (because every grade school project is improved with dinosaurs). In our model, red food coloring, baking soda, and vinegar are meant to simulate what's going on when an Earthly volcano erupts. Magma, which is molten rock and volatile, builds up pressure until the ground gives way and it spews forth from vents in the Earth's surface.

This sometimes looks like the occasional, seemingly apocalyptic eruptions of Volcán de Colima in Mexico. And sometimes it looks like the gentle flows in the Pacific islands where you can hire a tour guide and observe lava streams as they roll along.

A cryovolcano isn't all that different. Like an Earth volcano, it results from pressure beneath a celestial surface. Rather than molten rock, however, as the name "ice volcano" suggests, cryovolcanoes are the eruptions of molten ice, sometimes called cryomagma. They can erupt violently or flow gently, just like the volcanoes on Earth. The gentle "tour guide" eruptions are believed to be like flowing slurries.

When you read about "plumes" emanating from planets—the plumes of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, perhaps being the most famous—you're reading about a cryovolcanic eruption. These are extremely important to planetary science, as such plumes allow for the direct sampling of a celestial body's subsurface without the need to build a prohibitively expensive lander or rover. Last year, the spacecraft Cassini flew through one of one of Enceladus's plumes, taking samples for scientific analysis.


Plutonian ice volcanoes are exciting in part because of their size, but also because together they make up yet another surprising feature of a wildly complex, geologically active world. As if ice mountains and nitrogen glaciers weren't enough, one cryovolcano, called Wright Mons (named after the Wright Brothers, and pictured above) is two-and-a-half miles tall and spread across 90 miles. Piccard Mons is even taller.  

Here is TomoNews's quirky animated take on Pluto's cryovolcanoes. 

Wright Mons is thought to have been active very recently in geologic terms, as only a single impact crater has been found on the surface around the volcano. Craters help determine the age of a celestial object's surface. An old surface will be very heavily cratered; a young surface will not. It falls to planetary scientists to collectively play the role of Sherlock Holmes, taking in all of the geologic and cosmic evidence available to work out what processes are at work on a world to renew its surface.

Pluto, Enceladus, and Earth, of course, aren't the only bodies in the solar system with volcanoes. Titan, one of Saturn's moons, has possible cryovolcanoes that are shaped much like those on Earth. The reigning champion of active volcanism in the solar system is Io, Jupiter's moon, which spews Earth-like silicate lava. Io's volcanism is the result of the massive tidal forces of the giant planet it orbits. These tidal forces cause internal friction that, in turn, produces tremendous heat. Because Io is so cold, its volcanic eruptions sometimes produce "volcanic snow," which is exactly what it sounds like.

NASA, JPL-Caltech
It's Official: Uranus Smells Like Farts
NASA, JPL-Caltech
NASA, JPL-Caltech

Poor Uranus: After years of being the butt of many schoolyard jokes, the planet's odor lives up to the unfortunate name. According to a new study by researchers at the University of Oxford and other institutions, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, the upper layer of Uranus's atmosphere consists largely of hydrogen sulfide—the same compound that gives farts their putrid stench.

Scientists have long suspected that the clouds floating over Uranus contained hydrogen sulfide, but the compound's presence wasn't confirmed until recently. Certain gases absorb infrared light from the Sun. By analyzing the infrared light patterns in the images they captured using the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, astronomers were able to get a clearer picture of Uranus's atmospheric composition.

On top of making farts smelly, hydrogen sulfide is also responsible for giving sewers and rotten eggs their signature stink. But the gas's presence on Uranus has value beyond making scientists giggle: It could unlock secrets about the formation of the solar system. Unlike Uranus (and most likely its fellow ice giant Neptune), the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter show no evidence of hydrogen sulfide in their upper atmospheres. Instead they contain ammonia, the same toxic compound used in some heavy-duty cleaners.

"During our solar system's formation, the balance between nitrogen and sulfur (and hence ammonia and Uranus’s newly detected hydrogen sulfide) was determined by the temperature and location of planet’s formation," research team member Leigh Fletcher, of the University of Leicester, said in a press statement. In other words, the gases in Uranus's atmosphere may be able to tell us where in the solar system the planet formed before it migrated to its current spot.

From far away, Uranus's hydrogen sulfide content marks an exciting discovery, but up close it's a silent but deadly killer. In large enough concentrations, the compound is lethal to humans. But if someone were to walk on Uranus without a spacesuit, that would be the least of their problems: The -300°F temperatures and hydrogen, helium, and methane gases at ground level would be instantly fatal.

Live Smarter
Feeling Anxious? Just a Few Minutes of Meditation Might Help

Some say mindfulness meditation can cure anything. It might make you more compassionate. It can fix your procrastination habit. It could ward off germs and improve health. And it may boost your mental health and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.

New research suggests that for people with anxiety, mindfulness meditation programs could be beneficial after just one session. According to Michigan Technological University physiologist John Durocher, who presented his work during the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California on April 23, meditation may be able to reduce the toll anxiety takes on the heart in just one session.

As part of the study, Durocher and his colleagues asked 14 adults with mild to moderate anxiety to participate in an hour-long guided meditation session that encouraged them to focus on their breathing and awareness of their thoughts.

The week before the meditation session, the researchers had measured the participants' cardiovascular health (through data like heart rate and the blood pressure in the aorta). They evaluated those same markers immediately after the session ended, and again an hour later. They also asked the participants how anxious they felt afterward.

Other studies have looked at the benefits of mindfulness after extended periods, but this one suggests that the effects are immediate. The participants showed significant reduction in anxiety after the single session, an effect that lasted up to a week afterward. The session also reduced stress on their arteries. Mindfulness meditation "could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure," Durocher said in a press statement, helping protect the heart against the negative effects of chronic anxiety.

But other researchers have had a more cautious outlook on mindfulness research in general, and especially on studies as small as this one. In a 2017 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of 15 different experts warned that mindfulness studies aren't always trustworthy. "Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed," they wrote.

But one of the reasons that mindfulness can be so easy to hype is that it is such a low-investment, low-risk treatment. Much like dentists still recommend flossing even though there are few studies demonstrating its effectiveness against gum disease, it’s easy to tell people to meditate. It might work, but if it doesn't, it probably won't hurt you. (It should be said that in rare cases, some people do report having very negative experiences with meditation.) Even if studies have yet to show that it can definitively cure whatever ails you, sitting down and clearing your head for a few minutes probably won't hurt.


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