Effects of plasticity on convection in an ice shell: Implications for Europa

Adam P. Showman, Lijie Han

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Europa's surface exhibits numerous pits, uplifts, and disrupted chaos terrains that have been suggested to result from convection in the ice shell. To test this hypothesis, we present numerical simulations of convection in an ice shell including the effects of plasticity, which provides a simple continuum representation for brittle or semibrittle deformation along discrete fractures. Plastic deformation occurs when stresses reach a specified yield stress; at lower stresses, the fluid flow follows a Newtonian, temperature-dependent viscosity. Four distinct modes of behavior can occur. For yield stresses exceeding ∼1 bar, plastic effects are negligible and stagnant-lid convection, with no surface motion and minimal topography, results. At intermediate yield stresses, a stagnant lid forms but deforms plastically, leading to surface velocities up to several millimeters per year. Slightly smaller yield stresses allow episodic, catastrophic overturns of the upper conductive lid, with (transient) stagnant lids forming in between overturn events. The smallest yield stresses allow continual recycling of the upper lid, with simultaneous, gradual ascent of warm ice to the surface and descent of cold, near-surface ice into the interior. The exact yield stresses over which each regime occurs depend on the ice-shell thickness, melting-temperature viscosity, and activation energy for viscous creep. To form hummocky matrix and translate chaos plates by several kilometers, substantial surface strain must accompany chaos formation, and the three plasticity-dominated convection modes described here can provide such deformation. Our simulations suggest that, if yield stresses of ∼0.2-1 bar are relevant to Europa, then convection in Europa's ice shell can produce chaos-like structures at the surface. However, our simulations have difficulty explaining Europa's numerous pits and uplifts. When plasticity forces the upper lid to participate in the convection, dynamic topography of ∼50-100-m amplitude results, but the topographic structures generally have diameters of 30-100 km, an order of magnitude wider than typical pits and uplifts. None of our simulations produced isolated pits or uplifts of any diameter.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)425-437
Number of pages13
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 2005


  • Europa
  • Ices
  • Satellite
  • Satellites of Jupiter
  • Surfaces
  • Tectonics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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