Chaos on Europa

Richard Greenberg, Gregory V. Hoppa, B. R. Tufts, Paul Geissler, Jeannemarie Riley, Steven Kadel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

164 Scopus citations


The characteristics of chaos regions on Europa suggest they may be sites of melt-through from below. They are wide ranging in size, location, and age. The largest are hundreds of kilometers across. Most are similar to Conamara with a matrix reminiscent of frozen slush and often rafts of preexisting crust. Edges are of two types: ramps, perhaps the tapering of crustal thickness to zero, or cliffs, where rafts appear to have broken clear from the shore. The small features called lenticulae generally appear to be small chaoses with textured matrix and occasional rafts, and many domes may be small chaoses raised by isostatic compensation following refreezing of the crust. The extent of chaoses often appears to be limited by ridge systems with the coastline parallel and set back by a distance comparable to the width of the ridge system. Preexisting ridges often survive as causeways or chains of rafts. Boundaries of chaoses are apparently not controlled by preexisting cracks, consistent with formation by a thermal, rather than mechanical, process. Ridges may thicken the crust such that melt-through is more likely (but not always) between ridge systems. Subsequent cracks and ridges form across preexisting chaoses, ranging from fresh cases with few cracks or ridges across them (with paths somewhat jagged as they meander among rafts) to heavily dissected examples. Isolated tilted raft-like blocks surrounded by densely ridged terrain may be relics of former chaotic terrain. Thus two fundamental resurfacing processes have alternated over Europa's geological history: melt-through (at various places and times) forming chaos terrain, and tectonic cracking and dilation building densely ridged and banded terrain. Mapping of chaos features based on morphology at 200 m shows that they correlate, albeit imperfectly, with dark regions in global (2-km resolution) mosaics (except dark regions due to ridge margins or craters). Extrapolating from our mapping of the 5% of Europa covered by appropriate images, at least 18% of the surface of Europa is fresh appearing chaos, an additional 4% is slightly modified chaos, and much more older chaotic terrain has been overprinted by tectonic structures. Considerable area has been available globally to accommodate the expansion of crust that occurs along extensional ridges and bands. Chaos ubiquity suggests that europan geology has been dominated by the effects of having liquid water under a very thin ice shell, with chaos regions being widespread indicators of occasional zero shell thickness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)263-286
Number of pages24
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 1999


  • Europa
  • Geological processes
  • Ices
  • Thermal histories
  • Tides

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Chaos on Europa'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this