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Giant Lava Waves Spotted Surging Violently in Jupiter’s Volcanic Moon Io

May 11, 2017 10:19 AM EDT
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Even big wave surfers won't be very eager to ride this gigantic wave.

According to a report from Gizmodo, Jupiter's moon Io is known to be the most volcanically active object in the solar system with hundreds of active volcanoes and molten lakes. The largest of these lakes, Loki Patera, is 8,300 square miles big and features a strange regular phenomenon: a periodic brightening every 400 to 600 days.

It was early March 2015 when another Jupiter moon Europa passed in front of Io, blocking out light from the volcanic moon. Because Europa's surface is ice, reflecting very little sunlight when viewed through infrared wavelengths, the researchers can isolate the heat from Io's volcanoes.

The infrared observations revealed that the surface temperature of Loki Patera steadily increased from one end of the lake to another. This suggests that the lava overturned in two waves that swept from east to west at roughly 3,300 feet (one kilometer) each day.

"The velocity of overturn is also different on the two sides of the island, which may have something to do with the composition of the magma or the amount of dissolved gas in bubbles in the magma," lead study author Katharine de Kleer explained. "There must be differences in the magma supply to the two halves of the patera, and whatever is triggering the start of overturn manages to trigger both halves at nearly the same time but not exactly."

Co-author Ashley Davies of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena stressed that the lava waves aren't like the ocean waves that occur on Earth. Instead, she explained, Io's "waves" begins when a crust forms on a lava lake, which thickens upon cooling. Its increasing density leads to the crust sinking and this action propagates in a wave that surges through the lake.

"This is the first useful map of the entire patera," said co- Davies said in a report from Phys Org. "It shows not one but two resurfacing waves sweeping around the patera. This is much more complex than what was previously thought".

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

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