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Starts With A Bang

Earth isn’t alone: Venus once had plate tectonics, too

Out of the four rocky planets in our Solar System, only Earth presently has plate tectonics. But billions of years ago, Venus had them, too.
venus earth comparison
Earth, in visible light at right, and Venus, as seen in infrared at left, have nearly identical radii, with Venus being approximately ~90–95% the physical size of Earth. Despite producing similar amounts of internal heat, Earth exhibits plate tectonic activity while Venus only has one single, non-moving plate at present. Both worlds, however, are incredibly volcanically active, with evidence showing volcanic resurfacing on Venus since 1990. Early on, Venus may have been surprisingly Earth-like, but perhaps not for very long.
Credit: NASA/Magellan
Key Takeaways
  • Among the planets in our Solar System, only Earth has active plate tectonics today. Some outer moons may have ice-plate tectonics, but Mars and Mercury are both uni-plate planets.
  • While Venus appears to have only one plate as well, its surface is relatively young, with recent volcanic activity wiping out any trace of its tectonic history during the early and intermediate phases of our Solar System.
  • However, a new study looks at the link between Venus’s atmosphere and interior, and concludes that an ancient phase of plate tectonics, lasting at least 1 billion years, must have occurred in its past.

When it comes to the worlds present in our Solar System, we need look no farther than our closest planetary neighbors to realize just how good we have it here on Earth. On Earth, we have stable, life-supporting conditions here on the surface, with a thin but stable atmosphere, liquid-water oceans and the right temperatures and pressures to support them, and active plate tectonics that gradually causes mountains, oceans, islands, and other continental and sub-ocean features to grow, shrink, and otherwise evolve. None of the other planets in our inner Solar System, as far as we know, possess any of these features.

While Mars is small, distant and cold and Mercury is scorchingly baked and atmosphere-free, Venus represents an interesting case of an alternative pathway for an Earth-sized planet. Although Venus is about the same physical size as Earth and only somewhat closer to the Sun, any Earth-like conditions once present on it have been left in the distant past. Today, Venus has a thick, cloud-rich atmosphere of dense greenhouse gases, with surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead and tremendous evidence for copious volcanic activity. Although it has no active, moving tectonic plates today, a new paper argues that Venus, like Earth, once possessed active plate tectonics. Here’s the compelling case for Venus’s early phase of plate tectonics.

diagram of plate tectonics on Earth
At the boundary between two plates on Earth, they can either diverge, where new crust is produced as the plates pull apart, converge, where crust is destroyed as one plate is pushed beneath another, “transform” where they slide horizontally past one another, or at boundary zones where interactions are unclear. These are responsible for and related to surface features such as mountain-building, earthquakes, volcanoes, and more.
Credit: USGS

There’s a lot we still don’t understand about plate tectonics, both on Earth and elsewhere in the Solar System. On Earth, we understand that our planet’s lithosphere — the combination of our crust and the mantle’s topmost layer — are fragmented into a series of plates, which in turn:

  • collide,
  • spread apart,
  • uplift,
  • and subduct,

among other behaviors, creating a rich diversity of surface features. These can include new land masses, large mountain ranges, and can even recycle old sections of the Earth’s surface back into the planet’s interior.

This is certainly true of modern-day Earth, but did our planet always possess the plate tectonics we’re accustomed to at present? That question is far more uncertain, with no consensus within the community as to whether plate tectonics are basically as old as the Earth, whether they began hundreds of millions or even 1-1.5 billion years after Earth’s formation, or whether they only came about relatively recently. From looking at other worlds in the Solar System with ice-plate tectonics, such as Europa and possibly even Pluto, it may be that the combination of internal heat along with the lubricating effects of water are what enable the plate tectonic behaviors that are present on Earth today.

supercontinent breakup
This animation shows the breakup of supercontinent Gondwanaland, which itself was a large subsection of Pangaea at one point, into the smaller continents of South America, Antarctica, Africa, Australia, as well as components of other continents that are recognizable, such as Arabia and India. The theory of plate tectonics and continental drift is so successful because of the evidence that supports it.
Credit: B. Goldberg/Quora, modified by E. Siegel

It’s a pretty good bet that Mercury, our Moon, and Mars all never had plate tectonics on them, for a variety of reasons. For Mercury and the Moon, the weight of evidence from craters and cratering rates support the notion that no tectonic activity was ever present on them, and Mercury itself even lost most of its mantle early on in our Solar System’s history; it has the largest metallic core of any planet relative to its size. For Mars, meanwhile, the fact that it has only a few notable volcanoes — and that the volcano-forming hotspots beneath its crust are still in the same location they were 3+ billion years ago — constrains any plate tectonic scenario to its most extreme early stages.

It’s enough to make one wonder what it is about Earth, if anything, that makes our planet special? These other worlds show no evidence for plate tectonics in either recent or ancient history, and in fact may all have been uni-plate planets for all of planetary history in our Solar System.

But in order to even consider that Earth is something special here, we need to consider the curious case of Venus. Venus is comparable to Earth in terms of both mass and physical size, and is currently volcanically active today, with recent evidence emerging from the Magellan mission suggesting that volcanic eruptions are still occurring there, and creating local resurfacing events, at present.

Venus active volcanoes magellan
These two images of the same region of the surface of Venus, taken by the Magellan spacecraft in 1990 and 1992, show evidence of a changing landscape: consistent with a volcanic eruption resurfacing and adding material to part of the imaged landscape depicted here. The resurfacing, or covering-over of previous craters, is extremely strong evidence for such a phenomenon. Io, however, was the second world in the Solar System (after Earth) that humanity discovered to be volcanically active.
Credit: R.R. Herrick and S. Hensley, Science, 2023

However, when we examine the surface of Venus and look at the cratering rates on the surface of that world, we can conclude that 80% or more of the Venusian surface is young: only about 1 billion years old at the oldest. This means that for most of Venus’s history — the first 3.5 billion years of its planetary history — we have practically no information about what its surface was like.

How, then, can we be expected to draw conclusions about Venus’s history and whether it had plate tectonics or not, particularly when Earth’s early tectonic history, even with all the data we have about our planet, is still in doubt?

It’s a challenging proposition, to say the least. Keep in mind that, unlike the Earth, for Venus, we have:

  • no rock samples from it,
  • no high-resolution mapping of its surface,
  • and only a limited geologic record,
  • that only goes back to cover approximately 20-25% of the planet’s total history.

Even with that, Venus, as we observe it, shows a pattern of tectonic deformation, and may indeed have a globally fragmented and mobile lithosphere, despite not having Earth-style plate tectonics right now.

densest planet
This cutaway view of the four terrestrial planets (plus Earth’s moon) shows the relative sizes of the cores, mantles, and crusts of these five worlds. There are compelling similarities between Earth and Mars, as they both have crusts, mantles, and metal-rich cores. However, the much smaller size of Mars means that it both contained less heat overall initially, and that it loses its heat at a greater rate (by percentage) than Earth does.
Credit: NASA/JPL

The answer, as counterintuitive as it may seem, might be something we can learn by examining Venus’s atmosphere, rather than anything occurring on (or even beneath) Venus’s surface. One of the key reasons this may be possible is that the interior evolution of Venus is directly related to the evolution of Venus’s atmosphere, with the gases and atomic components of gases that make up its atmosphere primarily originating from within the interior of the planet itself.

If you can take a look at what Venus’s atmosphere is like today, for example, and compare it with various models that take into account the interplay of Venus’s atmosphere with:

  • the thermal/heat contents of Venus’s interior,
  • the chemical evolution of Venus’s interior,
  • and the tectonic evolution of Venus’s crust and upper mantle,

then it may become possible to look at the atmospheric contents of Venus today — including the quantities of gases like molecular nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and anything that contains sulfur — and consider which models are consistent with the data and which ones conflict with it. That’s precisely what this new paper seeks to do.

NASA Venus HAVOC concept mission
The proposed High Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC) mission would have searched for either past or present life in the upper atmosphere of Venus, where conditions are surprisingly similar to those found in the environment right at Earth’s surface. This task will fall to other future missions, like DAVINCI and VERITAS, instead, but the case for life in the cloud-decks of Venus is bolstered by the suggestive detection of phosphine, which is still a contested discovery.
Credit: NASA Langley

We know that Venus, as our starting point, is nearly as large and massive as Earth, and is composed of very similar materials on the inside to our own planet, as evidenced by Venus’s similar density to Earth. (The comparison is 5.24 grams per cubic centimeter for Venus, overall, versus 5.51 for Earth.) If that’s the case, then much like Earth, Venus must have formed with a substantial amount of internal heat, and should also possess similarly sized layers to Earth:

  • a solid iron/metal inner core (and, perhaps, an innermost core within that as well),
  • surrounded by a liquid iron/metal outer core,
  • with an enormous solid-rock mantle outside of that, composing most of the planet’s volume,
  • followed by a thin crust.

With all of that heat inside all of those layers, it’s a near-certainty that the mantle itself is going to have an enormous temperature gradient within it, and that temperature gradient is going to lead to some sort of convective (or churning-over) behavior.

However, the big uncertainty involved with Venus, which also concerns uncertainties when we consider Earth’s ancient past, is just what type of convection occurs within it. Does the whole mantle convect? Does the mantle convect in separate layers, and do those layers mix? And does any part of the mantle that convects include the surface/crust, allowing the surface to participate in what’s called “mantle overturn” or not?

Venus map magellan arecibo data
The surface of Venus, as reconstructed with the radar mapping conducted jointly by NASA’s Magellan mission and the Earth-based Arecibo telescope, which was used to fill in the areas that Magellan could not image. These images reveal many features suggesting current volcanic activity, but show no evidence for active lid tectonics.
Credit: NASA/JPL

Here on modern Earth, we have upper-mantle convection (which includes the overturn of Earth’s crust, along with the upper layer of Earth’s mantle), lower-mantle convection (which involves the asthenosphere but not the lithosphere), and also whole-mantle convection, all occurring simultaneously within our planet.

However, on modern-day Venus, it’s thought that this is not occurring. Instead, present-day Venus has what the geophysics community calls a stagnant lid, which means that the topmost layer of the planet — the lithosphere that includes the crust and the uppermost mantle — is cold, solid, and relatively stable and immobile. This leads to stagnant lid tectonics, which includes virtually no horizontal (side-to-side) motions, which means that even if the lithosphere is fragmented into plates, these plates don’t migrate across the planet’s surface, but rather stay in place.

As you may have guessed from noticing that hot lava flows, but that colder rocks do not flow, a cold, solid lithosphere would be very strong and not easy to break apart, which would mean that any lower-mantle convection wouldn’t affect the stagnant lid very much at all.

hawaii hotspot earth mantle plume
The Hawaiian islands, like most island arcs that form on Earth, initially arose as a mantle plume delivered material up to Earth’s surface by rising through the crust. Over time, the lava builds up to poke above Earth’s oceanic surface, and then, as the plate slides over so that the forming, growing mountain is no longer over the same hot-spot, a new island begins to form. Once a mountain has moved off of its hotspot, it can only erode, not grow any further. This provides strong evidence for Earth’s active lid tectonics; a property not presently seen on Venus.
Credit: Joel E. Robinson, USGS

Today, Venus very much has a stagnant lid. Early on in Earth’s history, before achieving our present state of active plate tectonics (which is sometimes called “mobile lid” or “active lid” tectonics), we may have also had a stagnant lid on our world; it was recognized as early as 1989 that the stagnant lid regime is a very stable configuration, and may have even applied to Earth long ago.

But did Venus always have a stagnant lid? For nearly 30 years now, it’s been pretty clear that the data we’ve acquired only allows us to say that the stagnant lid phase of Venus is at least around 500 million years old, but that early on, this may not have been the case. Just as Earth may have switched “modes” in its ancient past, so too, may have Venus, as its young surface offers little in the way of constraints on its early properties.

But this is why Venus’s atmosphere is so interesting: because it’s thick and massive, but not so thick and massive as to have turned Venus into a mini-Neptune-like world. At its surface, Venus has 93 times the atmospheric pressure as there is at Earth’s surface, with a whopping 4.8 × 1020 kilograms of mass composing the Venusian atmosphere. (For comparison, that’s about 40% as massive as all of Earth’s water stores, including the oceans, combined.)

venus nitrogen carbon dioxide atmosphere
The estimated contents of Venus’s atmosphere, for both nitrogen (top) and carbon dioxide (bottom), under conditions of active lid and stagnant lid tectonics. Neither abundance can be matched by a stagnant lid, which fails to produce enough gas, but an active lid that lasts for too long, such as for 2-4 billion years, will overproduce the gases observed, particularly carbon dioxide.
Credit: M.B. Weller et al., Nature Astronomy, 2023

Venus’s atmosphere is made up mostly of carbon dioxide (96.5%) and nitrogen (3.5%), with the next most abundant component, sulfur dioxide, coming in at only 0.015%. The big question that the authors of the latest study looked at is, based on a realistic thermal model for early Venus’s interior and either stagnant or active lid tectonics, how much nitrogen and carbon dioxide would have been produced.

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If there was a stagnant lid the entire time that Venus has been around, there’s no way to arrive at the present amount of nitrogen, or the present amount of carbon dioxide, or the present amount of total atmospheric pressure that Venus exhibits today.

On the other hand, if there was an active lid for too long — for about 2 billion years or more — on Venus, then you would actually wind up overproducing the gases we see: particularly carbon dioxide. It’s an implausible scenario that Venus would have been a planet with active lid tectonics for most of its history.

Instead, what you want to do is match all three observables: nitrogen abundance, carbon dioxide abundance, and total atmospheric pressure, even when you account for solar and planetary evolution and how they affect a planetary atmosphere over time.

active stagnant lid venus gases
If you want to match the nitrogen abundance, carbon dioxide abundance, and total atmospheric pressure observed on Venus today, you cannot have a planet with an eternally stagnant lid, nor can you have one with an active lid phase that endures for too long. Only if you have an early active lid phase that lasts for around ~1 billion years and then converts to a stagnant lid can you match observations, strongly supporting a scenario where early Venus had Earth-like active lid tectonics for a substantial part of its history.
Credit: M.B. Weller et al., Nature Astronomy, 2023

The scenario that best matches the data, according to this latest study, is one where Venus possessed an early, active phase of plate tectonics (active lid tectonics) that produced large amounts of nitrogen and carbon dioxide early on, lasting for around the first ~1 billion years, and possibly slightly more, of Venus’s history. This had to have been followed by a transition from active lid to stagnant lid tectonics: what the authors call a “great climatic-tectonic transition,” where the stagnant lid mode then persists up through the present day. Although the stagnant lid mode still includes volcanic activity, the outgassing rates are greatly reduced over the active lid scenario.

This paints a novel but grim picture of how Venus came to be the way it is today. Perhaps, early on, the active lid tectonics released large amounts of carbon dioxide gas, and that gas may have accumulated rapidly in the atmosphere. If you can’t recycle, lose, or sequester that carbon dioxide fast enough, it leads to an extreme greenhouse state, and that’s a fatal condition for any surface-dwelling life. However, if life arose early enough on Venus, before the runaway greenhouse process, it’s still possible that life’s vestiges still exist in Venus’s atmosphere today, and could potentially be detected by probing carbon-and-nitrogen isotope ratios. Whether there was life or not, the DAVINCI mission, among others, will be able to measure the nitrogen-15 to nitrogen-14 ratio, which will help determine how much atmosphere was lost to space over Venus’s history.

But most importantly, in the history of plate tectonics, we know that Earth is no longer alone in the Solar System: Venus once had active plates, too, and its atmosphere, not surface, is what lets us know for sure!


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