The influence of subsurface flow on lake formation and north polar lake distribution on Titan

David G. Horvath, Jeffrey C. Andrews-Hanna, Claire E. Newman, Karl L. Mitchell, Bryan W. Stiles

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Observations of lakes, fluvial dissection of the surface, rapid variations in cloud cover, and lake shoreline changes indicate that Saturn's moon Titan is hydrologically active, with a hydrocarbon-based hydrological cycle dominated by liquid methane. Here we use a numerical model to investigate the Titan hydrological cycle - including surface, subsurface, and atmospheric components - in order to investigate the underlying causes of the observed distribution and sizes of lakes in the north polar region. The hydrocarbon-based hydrological cycle is modeled using a numerical subsurface flow model and analytical runoff scheme, driven by a general circulation model with an active methane-cycle. This model is run on synthetically generated topography that matches the fractal character of the observed topography, without explicit representation of the effects of erosion and deposition. At the scale of individual basins, intermediate to high permeability (10-8-10-6cm2) aquifers are required to reproduce the observed large stable lakes. However, at the scale of the entire north polar lake district, a high permeability aquifer results in the rapid flushing of methane through the aquifer from high polar latitudes to dry lower polar latitudes, where methane is removed by evaporation, preventing large lakes from forming. In contrast, an intermediate permeability aquifer slows the subsurface flow from high polar latitudes, allowing greater lake areas. The observed distribution of lakes is best matched by either a uniform intermediate permeability aquifer, or a combination of a high permeability cap at high latitudes surrounded by an intermediate permeability aquifer at lower latitudes, as could arise due to karstic processes at the north pole. The stability of Kraken Mare further requires reduction of the evaporation rate over the sea to 1% of the value predicted by the general circulation model, likely as a result of dissolved ethane, nitrogen, or organic solutes, and/or a climatic lake effect. These results reveal that subsurface flow through aquifers plays an important role in Titan's hydrological cycle, and exerts a strong influence over the distribution, size, and volatile budgets of Titan's lakes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)103-124
Number of pages22
StatePublished - Oct 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Titan
  • Titan, hydrology
  • Titan, surface

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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