Thermal convection in ice-I shells of Titan and Enceladus

Giuseppe Mitri, Adam P. Showman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

58 Scopus citations


Cassini-Huygens observations have shown that Titan and Enceladus are geologically active icy satellites. Mitri and Showman [Mitri, G., Showman, A.P., 2005. Icarus 177, 447-460] and McKinnon [McKinnon, W.B., 2006. Icarus 183, 435-450] investigated the dynamics of an ice shell overlying a pure liquid-water ocean and showed that transitions from a conductive state to a convective state have major implications for the surface tectonics. We extend this analysis to the case of ice shells overlying ammonia-water oceans. We explore the thermal state of Titan and Enceladus ice-I shells, and also we investigate the consequences of the ice-I shell conductive-convective switch for the geology. We show that thermal convection can occur, under a range of conditions, in the ice-I shells of Titan and Enceladus. Because the Rayleigh number Ra scales with δ3 / ηb, where δ is the thickness of the ice shell and ηb is the viscosity at the base of the ice-I shell, and because ammonia in the liquid layer (if any) strongly depresses the melting temperature of the water ice, Ra equals its critical value for two ice-I shell thicknesses: for relatively thin ice shell with warm, low-viscosity base (Onset I) and for thick ice shell with cold, high-viscosity base (Onset II). At Onset I, for a range of heat fluxes, two equilibrium states-corresponding to a thin, conductive shell and a thick, convective shell-exist for a given heat flux. Switches between these states can cause large, rapid changes in the ice-shell thickness. For Enceladus, we demonstrate that an Onset I transition can produce tectonic stress of ∼ 500   bars and fractures of several tens of km depth. At Onset II, in contrast, we demonstrate that zero equilibrium states exist for a range of heat fluxes. For a mean heat flux within this range, the satellite experiences oscillations in surface heat flux and satellite volume with periods of ∼ 50 - 800   Myr even when the interior heat production is constant or monotonically declining in time; these oscillations in the thermal state of the ice-I shell would cause repeated episodes of extensional and compressional tectonism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)387-396
Number of pages10
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2008


  • Enceladus
  • Geophysics
  • Ices
  • Interiors
  • Saturn
  • Titan
  • satellites

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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