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date: 21 January 2018

Volcanism on Mercury

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Mercury has no recognized tracts of intact primary crust analogous to lunar highland crust, probably because Mercury’s iron-poor magma ocean was insufficiently dense to enable crystallized silicates to float. Its surface is accepted to consist mostly of multiple generations of lavas, rather like terrestrial “large igneous provinces” or LIPs, emplaced in greatest volumes prior to about 3.5 Ga. Subsequently, erupted volumes decreased, and became largely confined to impact craters. Plains younger than about 3.7 Ga are scarred by so few impact craters that they are mapped as “smooth plains.” Older plains are termed “intercrater plains.” There is no consensus on whether plains with characteristics intermediate between smooth and intercrater plains can be consistently mapped (as “intermediate plains”). The volcanic nature of Mercury’s smooth plains was ambiguous on images returned by the first mission to Mercury, Mariner 10 (three flybys in 1974–1975. Better imaging by MESSENGER (in orbit 2011–2015) removed doubt by documenting innumerable ghost craters and wrinkle ridges. Vents are obscure, as is normal in LIPs, but there are good examples of streamlined islands showing the passage of fast-flowing, low-viscosity lava.

The causes of mantle partial melting necessary to supply Mercury’s eruptions are unclear, but secular cooling of a small, one-plate planet is expected to lead to the decrease in volcanic activity that we observe. Factors include loss of primordial heat and declining rate of radiogenic heat production, and closure of pathways by planetary thermal contraction. Lava compositions resemble komatiites but with low iron content. Regional variations may reflect lateral and vertical heterogeneities in the mantle, or different degrees of partial melting. The cessation of effusive volcanism on Mercury is hard to date because the youngest areas are small. However, it probably continued until about 1 Ga.

That was not the end of volcanism on the planet. MESSENGER images show >100 “pits,” which are noncircular holes up to tens of km across and up to about 4 km deep. Many are surrounded by spectrally red deposits, with faint outer edges many tens of km from the pit, interpreted as ejecta from explosive eruptions. Some pits have complex floors, suggesting vent migration. Explosive eruptions require violent gas expansion. This could be either a magmatic volatile expanding near the top of a magma conduit, or a result from heating of a crustal/near-surface volatile by approaching magma. Mercury’s crust is surprisingly rich in volatiles, of which the one likely to be of most importance in driving the explosive eruptions is sulfur. We do not know when explosive volcanism began on Mercury. Cross-cutting relationships suggest that some explosion pits are considerably less than 1 Ga old, though most could easily be older than 3 Ga. They characteristically occur associated with structures inside impact craters, and while some pits have no discernible “red spot” surrounding them (perhaps because over time it has faded into the background), there is no known example of partial burial of a red spot by a smooth plains unit. Thus, there seems to have been a change in eruptive style, with (small volume) explosions supplanting (large volume) effusive events.