Science Fiction in Science: Volcanism on Giant Earths

September 16th, 2008

It seems that massive Earth-like planets exist in other star systems, rocky bodies with masses several times higher than that of the Earth. Some scientists are trying to understand the geological structure, volcanism, outgassing, and plate tectonics. This is probably more detail than you might need to write a story, but thinking about these details and having the support for them can really deepen the world-building and the suspension of disbelief.

Anyway, interesting paper on the astro-physics preprint server today:

arXiv:0809.2305 [pdf, other]
Title: Geodynamics and Rate of Volcanism on Massive Earth-like Planets
Subjects: Astrophysics (astro-ph)

We provide estimates of volcanism versus time for planets with Earth-like composition and masses from 0.25 to 25 times Earth, as a step toward predicting atmospheric mass on extrasolar rocky planets. Volcanism requires melting of the silicate mantle. We use a thermal evolution model, calibrated against Earth, in combination with standard melting models, to explore the dependence of convection-driven decompression mantle melting on planet mass. Here we show that (1) volcanism is likely to proceed on massive planets with plate tectonics over the main-sequence lifetime of the parent star; (2) crustal thickness (and melting rate normalized to planet mass) is weakly dependent on planet mass; (3) stagnant lid planets can have higher rates of melting than their plate tectonic counterparts early in their thermal evolution, but melting shuts down after a few Gyr; (4) plate tectonics may not operate on high mass planets because of the production of buoyant crust which is difficult to subduct; and (5) melting is necessary but insufficient for efficient volcanic degassing – volatiles partition into the earliest, deepest melts, which may be denser than the residue and sink to the base of the mantle on young, massive planets. Magma must also crystallize at or near the surface, and the pressure of overlying volatiles must be fairly low, if volatiles are to reach the surface.


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