Volcanism on Mercury

Rothery, David A. (2018). Volcanism on Mercury. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190647926.013.118


The history of volcanism on Mercury is almost the entire history of the formation of its crust. There are no recognized tracts of intact primary crust analogous to the Moon’s highland crust, probably because the density of Mercury’s iron-poor magma ocean was insufficient to enable crystalized silicate phases to float. Mercury’s surface consists of multiple generations of lavas. These were emplaced, rather like terrestrial “large igneous provinces” or LIPs, in their greatest volumes prior to about 3.5 Ga. Subsequently, erupted volumes decreased, and sites of effusive eruption became largely confined to crater floors. Plains lava surfaces younger than about 3.7 Ga have become scarred by sufficiently few impact craters that they are mapped as “smooth plains.” The older equivalents, which experienced the inner solar system’s “late heavy bombardment,” are mapped as intercrater plains. There is no consensus over whether plains with superimposed-crater characteristics that are intermediate between the smooth plains and intercrater plains end members can be consistently mapped as “intermediate plains.” However, any subdivision of the volcanic plains for mapping purposes arbitrarily splits apart a continuum.

The volcanic nature of Mercury’s smooth plains was ambiguous on the basis of the imagery returned by the first mission to Mercury, Mariner 10, which made three fly-bys in 1974–1975. Better and more complete imaging by MESSENGER (in orbit 2011–2015) removed any doubt by documenting innumerable ghost craters and wrinkle ridges. No source vents for the plains are apparent, but this is normal in LIPs where effusion rate and style characteristically flood the vent beneath its own products. However, there are good examples of broad, flat-bottomed valleys containing streamlined islands suggesting passage of fast-flowing low viscosity lava.

Although the causes of the mantle partial melting events supplying surface eruptions on Mercury are unclear, secular cooling of a small, one-plate planet such as Mercury would be expected to lead to the sort of temporal decrease in volcanic activity that is observed. Factors include loss of primordial heat and declining rate of radiogenic heat production (both of which would make mantle partial melting progressively harder), and thermal contraction of the planet (closing off ascent pathways).

Lava compositions, so far as can be judged from the limited X-ray spectroscopic and other geochemical measurements, appear to be akin to terrestrial komatiites but with very low iron content. Variations within this general theme may reflect heterogeneities in the mantle, or different degrees of partial melting.

The cessation of flood volcanism on Mercury is hard to date, because the sizes of the youngest flows, most of which are inside <200-km craters, are too small for reliable statistics to be derived from the density of superposed craters. However, it probably continued until approximately 1 Ga ago.

That was not the end of volcanism. MESSENGER images have enabled the identification of over a hundred “pits,” which are noncircular holes up to tens of km in size and up to about 4 km deep. Many pits are surrounded by spectrally red deposits, with faint outer edges tens of km from the pit, interpreted as ejecta from explosive eruptions within the pit. Many pits have complex floors, suggesting vent migration over time. Pits usually occur within impact craters, and it has been suggested that crustal fractures below these craters facilitated the ascent of magma despite the compressive regime imposed by the secular thermal contraction. These explosive eruptions must have been driven by the violent expansion of a gas. This could be either a magmatic volatile expanding near the top of a magma conduit, or result from heating of a near-surface volatile by rising magma. MESSENGER showed that Mercury’s crust is surprisingly rich in volatiles (S, Cl, Na, K, C), of which the one likely to be of most importance in driving the explosive eruptions is S.

We do not know when explosive volcanism began on Mercury. Cross-cutting relationships suggest that some explosion pits are considerably less than 1 Ga old, though most could easily be more than 3 Ga. They characteristically occur on top of smooth plains (or less extensive smooth fill of impact craters), and while some pits have no discernible “red spot” around them (perhaps because over time, it has faded into the background), there is no known example of part of a red spot peeping out from beneath the edge of a smooth plains unit. There seems to have been a change in eruptive style over time, with (small volume) explosions supplanting (large volume) effusive events.

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