Volcanism in the Solar System: Hot Stuff!

Computer-generated image showing a volcano on the surface of Venus.
Maat Mons is a volcano on Venus with lava flows extending for hundreds of kilometers. The vertical scale is exaggerated in this computer-generated perspective. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL)


There is plenty of hot stuff in our solar system, even in the outer frozen realms; so much that planetary scientists have found evidence of volcanism on every terrestrial planet and on many of the moons and even some asteroids!

The Moon and Mercury have thick volcanic flows on their surfaces, erupted long ago from fissures in their crusts. While the Moon and Mercury have relatively small volcanoes, those on Venus, Earth and Mars are large and numerous. We know that Earth's volcanoes are still active and Venus' may be, but scientists debate whether Mars' volcanic activity has finished. Jupiter's moon Io holds the record for the most volcanically active body in the solar system (other moons feature a colder form of volcanism -- cryovolcanism; learn more about cryovolcanism under our topic, Ice in the Solar System).

Color image of Io.
Smelly Eruptions: Jupiter's moon lo is the most volcanically active body in our solar system, frequently erupting plumes of sulfur.
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Volcanologists on Earth have applied their knowledge to these other places in our solar system. Volcanic activity acts as a window to a planet's interior. The type of volcanism and the composition of the lava give scientists a peak underneath the crust. The very presence of volcanic features tells scientists that a planet's interior is -or was - hot enough to form magma that erupted at its surface.

Startling results from Venus Express and MESSENGER's mission to Mercury are redefining our understanding of planetary history: instruments aboard Venus Express suggest recently active volcanoes and MESSENGER shows widespread lava flows occurring long after Mercury formed.

Volcanoes can have a profound effect on people. Eruptions can disrupt air traffic, as we experienced in the 2010 Iceland eruptions. Numerous examples exist in history where thousands of people died as clouds of ash, lava, and mud flows buried villages and cities. Volcanoes can impact the entire Earth's climate: the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 caused a global cooling of one degree over the next year. But eruptions also have a role in creation; in addition to new land, volcanic activity helps to create a planet's atmosphere. Volcanic eruptions on early Earth spewed gases from the interior. (This outgassing continues today.) Most of the gas was carbon dioxide and water vapor. It was modified over time through chemical reactions with rocks and photosynthesizing organisms.


Volcanism is the eruption of molten rock (magma) onto the surface of a planet. A volcano is the vent through which magma and gases are discharged. Magma that reaches the surface is called "lava." Volcanoes are named for Vulcan -- the Roman god of fire!

Dark regions on the Moon are lunar maria.
Dark regions on the Moon are lunar maria. These are low, smooth regions of dark, fine-grained volcanic rock -- basalt. Galileo spacecraft image (PIA00405). (Image Credit: NASA/JPL/U.S. Geological Survey)
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Why and where do volcanoes form?
Volcanism is the result of a planet losing its internal heat. Volcanoes can form where rock near the surface becomes hot enough to melt. On Earth, this often happens in association with plate boundaries. Where two plates move apart, such as at mid-ocean volcanic ridges, material from Earth's interior slowly rises up, melts when it reaches lower pressures, and fills in the gap. Where one plate is being subducted under another, chambers of magma may form. These magma bodies feed the volcanic islands and continental volcanoes that mark subduction zones; the magma is silica-rich, forming explosive composite volcanoes.

Although most volcanic activity takes place at plate boundaries, volcanism also can occur within the plate interiors at hotspots. Hotspots are thought to be from large "plumes" of extremely hot material rising from deep in Earth's interior. The hot material rises slowly, eventually melting as it reaches lower pressures near Earth's surface. When the material erupts it forms massive lava flows of fine-grained dark volcanic rock -- basalt, which has less silica. The broad, gentle shield volcanoes of Hawai'i come from a hotspot.

What do Earth's volcanoes tell us?
The fact that Earth has volcanoes tells us that Earth's interior is circulating and is hot -- hot enough to melt. Earth is cooling; volcanoes are one way to lose heat. The pattern of distribution of volcanoes on Earth gives us a clue that Earth's outer surface is divided into plates; the chains of volcanoes associated with mid-ocean ridges and subduction zones mark the plate edges. Other planets have volcanic features -- some recently active -- telling geologists that they, too, are losing heat from their interiors and that there is circulation. However, these planets do not display the pattern that Earth's volcanoes do.

What evidence is there of volcanism on other planets?

Black and white image of craters on Mercury.
This MESSENGER image shows craters nearly filled with lava, leaving only traces of their circular rims. (Image Credit: NASA/ Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/ Carnegie Institute of Washington)
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Moon: Our closest neighbor has small volcanoes, fissures (breaks in the crust) and extensive flows of basalt, a fine-grained dark volcanic rock. The large dark basins that you can see on the Moon are the maria -- areas of these lava flows. However, all these volcanic features are old. There are no active volcanic features on the Moon. Most of the volcanic activity took place early in the Moon's history, before about 3 billion years ago. The most recent lava flow occurred about 1 billion years ago.

Mercury: The MESSENGER mission has photographed much of Mercury's surface and found evidence of volcanic activity shaping its surface. Some of the lava flows are between one billion and two billion years old. Although that is still relatively old by terrestrial standards, it tells planetary scientists that volcanic activity continued well after Mercury formed about 4.5 billion years ago.

Mars: Mars has volcanic features that are similar in shape to those on Earth, although much larger. There are large shield volcanoes -- like those in Hawai'i -- that contain 100 times more mass that those on Earth. Olympus Mons is the tallest volcano in our solar system. It is 22 km (14 miles) tall, compared to Mauna Loa's 9 km (almost 6 miles). It is 600 km across (375 miles), which is large enough to cover the state of Arizona! Several of the volcanoes on Mars, including Olympus Mons, occur in the Tharsis region; the magma for the volcanoes may come from hot material welling up in plumes from deep in Mars' interior. Many scientists consider Mars to be volcanically active, even if we have not observed an eruption. Basalt meteorites from Mars indicate that volcanism has occurred in the last 180 million years. Very few impact craters occur on the lava flows of Olympus Mons, suggesting that this volcano has probably erupted in the last few million years.

Venus: Venus has more than 1700 volcanic features and many of these look fresh -- unweathered. Much of the surface of Venus has been covered by huge flows of basalt lava, probably in the last few hundred million years. This blanket of lava completely covered the surface features, such as impact craters. The fact that only a few craters dot the surface provides evidence of the recent nature of this resurfacing.

Io: Jupiter's innermost moon, Io, is the most volcanically active body in our entire solar system! NASA missions imaged massive plumes shooting hundreds of kilometers above the surface, active lava flows and walls of fire associated with magma flowing from fissures. The entire surface of Io is covered with volcanic centers and lava flows, which have covered all of its impact craters.

Why don't we find active volcanoes on all planets and moons?
Active volcanoes occur on planets that are still hot. In general, the larger the planet, the slower it cools. Small planets or moons, like Mercury and our Moon, have cooled to the point that they are no longer hot enough to melt rock. Larger planets, like Earth and Venus, are still hot and still have active volcanism. Some small moons, like Io, have active volcanism because of tidal heating.


Featured Missions

The MESSENGER mission has photographed much of Mercury's surface and found evidence of volcanic activity shaping its surface. Some of the lava flows are between one billion and two billion years old. Although that is still relatively old by terrestrial standards, it tells planetary scientists that volcanic activity continued well after Mercury formed about 4.5 billion years ago.

Mars Odyssey
This mission has been orbiting Mars since 2001 and is still going strong. Its infrared spectrometer has found data of regional explosive andesitic volcanism on this planet dominated by gentler basaltic lava flows.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is taking high-resolution photographs of the lava flows, fissures and other volcanic features on the Moon, as well as studying the mineralogy and topography of the surface to learn more about the Moon's volcanic history.