Link #14: Ice Volcanoes are Real!


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Link #14: Ice Volcanoes are Real!

Sotra Facula
Sotra Facula, a hypothesized cryovolcano on Titan. Image credit: NASA/JPL

At the mention of a volcano, what comes to your mind? You probably imagine a raging mountain that spews out extremely hot lava. If you’ve seen the movies or read about Mount Vesuvius, then you might even imagine the lava burning through cities. However, did you know that there are volcanoes out there that spew out ice instead of hot magma?

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Where Are Ice Volcanoes Found?

Kuiper belt and Oort cloud
Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.

True cryovolcanoes, which is just another name for ice volcanoes, do not exist on Earth. Typically, you’ll find them on those objects in space that boast of extremely low temperatures, such as icy moons and objects located in the Kuiper Belt.

Icy moons are moons whose surfaces are covered with ice. The Kuiper Belt is a region of space beyond the planets of our solar system, that contains multiple objects.

The first ice volcano was discovered by Voyager 2 on Triton, which is one of Neptune’s moons. Later, evidence of ice volcanoes was found on other moons in our solar system as well, such as Enceladus, Europa, Titan, Miranda, and Ganymede.

How Do Ice Volcanoes Work?

Instead of molten rock, ice volcanoes spew out methane, ammonia and water, amongst other hydrogen-based compounds. The most abundant element in the universe is hydrogen, followed by helium.

We explained in the previous post (and you may have even read about) how the Sun accounts for about 99% of the mass of our solar system. This may lead you to imagine space as an extremely hot place; however, the opposite is true. And ice volcanoes show that space is, indeed, a cold place.

You’re probably wondering how these ice volcanoes get the energy to emit these icy materials. This happens through either of two ways:

1. The first is through tidal friction. Tidal friction is a result of gravity-based forces that are generated between the primary body and its moon. These forces give ice volcanoes the energy that they need to propel cryomagma.

2. The second source of energy that ice volcanoes use is created when semi-transparent (translucent) frozen materials get deposited. Because these materials are translucent, they work to create their own type of greenhouse effect. In the greenhouse effect, light and heat are absorbed and trapped inside a specific region. This creates the heat that ice volcanoes use to throw out cryomagma.

There Are Ice Volcanoes of a Different Nature on Earth

Great Lakes
Great Lakes, No Clouds . NASA image acquired August 28, 2010. By NASA Goddard Space Flight Center cc2.0

There are some ice volcanoes on Earth too, except they are different in nature from the ones described above. Earth’s ice volcanoes are not exactly volcanoes. Instead, they are conical deposits of ice found on the coasts in extremely cold regions of the Earth. Great examples of these conical deposits can be found in the Great Lakes Region of the United States and Canada.

These conical deposits of ice are located on overhangs over the water. When the land temperature is just right and the waves are particularly high, the water rushes up the cones. While it is rushing through the cones, the water is often cooled halfway. The result is the Earth’s own version of ice volcanoes. These ice volcanoes can range in size from a few feet to as big as houses.

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