Two classes of volcanic plumes on Io

Alfred S. McEwen, Laurence A. Soderblom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

96 Scopus citations


Comparison of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 images of the south polar region of Io has revealed that a major volcanic eruption occured there during the period between the two spacecraft encounters. An annular deposit ∼1400 km in diameter formed around the Aten Patera caldera (311°W, 48°S), the floor of which changed from orange to red-black. The characteristics of this eruption are remarkably similar to those described earlier for an eruption centered on Surt caldera (338°W, 45°N) that occured during the same period, also at high latitude, but in the north. Both volcanic centers were evidently inactive during the Voyager 1 and 2 encounters but were active sometime between the two. The geometric and colorimetric characteristics, as well as scale of the two annular deposits, are virtually identical; both resemble the surface features formed by the eruption of Pele (255°W, 18°S). These three very large plume eruptions suggest a class of eruption distinct from that of six smaller plumes observed to be continously active by both Voyagers 1 and 2. The smaller plumes, of which Prometheus is the type example, are longer-lived, deposit bright, whitish material, erupt at velocities of ∼0.5 km sec-1, and are concentrated at low latitudes in an equatorial belt around the satellite. The very large Pele-type plumes, on the other hand, are relatively short-lived, deposit darker red materials, erupt at ∼1.0 km sec-1, and (rather than restricted to a latitudinal band) are restricted in longitude from 240° to 360°W. Both direct thermal infrared temperature measurements and the implied color temperatures for quenched liquid sulfur suggest that hot spot temperatures of ∼650°K are associated with the large plumes and temperatures <400°K with the small plumes. The typical eruption duration of the small plumes is at least several years; that of the large plumes appears to be of the order of days to weeks. The two classes therefore differ by more than two orders of magnitude in duration of eruption. Based on uv, visible, and infrared spectra, the small plumes seem to contain and deposit SO2 in their annuli whereas the large plumes apparently do not. Two other plumes that occur at either end of the linear feature Loki may be intermediate or hybrid between the two classes, exhibiting attributes of both. Additionally, Loki occurs in the area of overlap in the regional distributions of the two plume classes. Two distinct volcanic systems involving different volatiles may be responsible for the two classes. We propose that the discrete temperatures associated with the two classes are a direct reflection of sulfur's peculiar variation in viscosity with temperature. Over two temperature ranges (∼400 to 430°K and >650°K), sulfur is a low-viscosity fluid (orange and black, respectively); at other temperatures it is either solid or has a high viscosity. As a result, there will be two zones in Io's crust in which liquid sulfur will flow freely: a shallow zone of orange sulfur and a deeper zone of black sulfur. A low-temperature system driven by SO2 heated to 400 to 400°K by the orange sulfur zone seems the best model for the small plumes; a system driven by sulfur heated to >650°K by hot or even molten silicates in the black sulfur zone seems the best explanation for the large plume class. The large Pele-type plumes are apparently concentrated in a region of the satellite in which a thinner sulfur-rich crust overlies the tidally heated silicate lithosphere, so the black sulfur zone may be fairly shallow in this region. The Prometheus-type plumes are possibly confined to the equatorial belt by some process that concentrates SO2 fluid in the equatorial crust.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)191-217
Number of pages27
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 1983
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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