March 1, 2012: Europa’s Great Lakes

Britney Schmidt
University of Texas


With an icy exterior covering a global ocean, Europa has long been a target of interest in the search for life beyond Earth. Europa exists in a dynamic environment, subject to intense irradiation and impact as well as immense tides from Jupiter. These processes deliver important thermal and chemical energy that could be critical to supporting a putative biosphere. In the past few decades the debate about habitability of Europa has been focused strongly on the thickness of the ice shell. However, an arguably more critical question is: how does the ice shell recycle? New analysis of Europa’s enigmatic “chaos terrains,” indicates that chaos features form in the presence of a great deal of liquid water, and that large liquid water bodies exist within 3km of Europa’s surface comparable in volume to the Great Lakes. The detection of shallow subsurface “lakes” implies that the ice shell is recycling rapidly and that Europa may be currently active. In this presentation, we will explore environments on Europa and their analogs on Earth, from collapsing Antarctic ice shelves to to subglacial volcanoes in Iceland. I will present these new analyses, and describe how this new perspective informs the debate about Europa’s habitability and future exploration.

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