Competition Winner: Volcanoes of the Solar System

It’s British Science Week all this week, and I am celebrating here on Soph talks science by sharing with you the winners of my first ever science writing competition. I had so, so many amazing entries in all the categories, and I really struggled to pick just one winner in each category, but I got there in the end after many hours of deliberation.

Today I wanted to share with you the winning entry in Category 3 for authors aged 16-18. Congratulations to Jade who is 16 years old and from the UK. They have written this piece called ‘Volcanoes of the Solar System’.

Make sure to give this post a read and show your support to Jade by giving it a like.

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Volcanoes of the Solar System

By Jade (Age 16)

Imagine a volcano… 

…you probably thought of something like that ↑ : a dark cone, alive with activity – ash flying in a tumbling storm cloud, volcano bombs left right and centre, and deadly lava coursing down its steep slopes: something reminiscent of composite volcanoes on the Pacific Ring of Fire (think Mt. St Helens). Or perhaps you thought a less violent shield volcano releasing tides of indestructible basaltic lava, like those in Hawaii or Iceland. 

Today, volcanic eruptions, although capable of destroying livelihoods, generally only affect a small population. But in the past, and possibly our future, volcanoes have caused mass extinction! 

250 million years ago the greatest mass extinction in history occurred, annihilating 95% of all organisms alive then: The mechanisms aren’t completely understood, but it’s thought that the cause was eruptions through fissures under what is now Russia! Nowadays, even the biggest active volcanoes don’t pose such a threat… except one. 

The Yellowstone caldera in Wyoming, USA could pump out enough ash to cover the surrounding 500 miles in 10cm of ash! Often sensationalised by the media, the next eruption – which is predicted to be geologically soon- could trigger a global winter, but you don’t need to worry, as the probability of it erupting soon on human scales, is very small.

Yellowstone may seem incomprehensibly big, but it, and even Earth’s tallest mountains, are dwarfed by Olympus Mons, Mars’ largest volcano. Its size is caused by Mars’ lack of plate tectonics. Like Hawaii, it is fuelled by a mantle plume (area of superheated rock in the mantle) that melts the crust, forming a magma chamber. The difference is that Mars has no plate tectonics, so whereas the crust on Earth moves over the mantle plume and creates a string of volcanic islands, the lava on mars simply builds up, and up, and up over time! Resulting in Olympus Mons reaching a towering 22 kilometres from base to peak!! That’s over twice the height of Mount Everest! 

Nowadays, it is unlikely to grow any higher, as Mars is pretty much geologically dead.  Being a smaller planet, it’s core is under less pressure so its residual inner heat was more quickly used up, so there is no longer a strong enough energy source to fuel the currents that cause tectonic activity. In fact, the last eruption of Olympus Mons was 25 million years ago- the same time as our ape ancestors split from monkeys in the evolutionary tree!

Mars is home to the largest volcano in the solar system, but what other planets are dotted with these cauldrons of doom?

Let’s start with Venus – being the most similar planet to Earth, in size and composition, surely it has similar volcanic features to earth? Although there are signs of more recent activity (flashes of heat seen in infrared in 2014), most of the ‘volcanoes’ are believed to be extinct. However, these volcanoes are very different from those on earth: nicknamed ‘pancake domes’ and similar to shield volcanoes, but are only 1km in height, 10-100x bigger than usual, and clustered together. 

In the outer solar system, bodies are either too small to have the heating required for typical volcanoes, or are gas giants with no conventional surface! Yet volcanoes, in various forms, exist even here.

Io – my favourite moon – is the most volcanic place in the solar system: its surface is pockmarked with over 400 active volcanoes! They can be so powerful, that when it was first imaged, astronomers thought that there was an undiscovered moon hidden behind it! Upon further investigation, they found it was simply a gigantic volcanic eruption, that shot material 100km above its surface- that’s the same height as the orbit of the ISS! But how? Such a small body like Io ought to be long dead by now, but its proximity to Jupiter and its very irregular, elliptical orbits causes tides in the same way our moon causes tides on earth. However, these are so strong that it isn’t just liquid that warps, but the entire surface rock bulges up to 100m up or down! This causes friction that heats its interior to allow for volcanism. 

So far from the sun, cryovolcanoes – spewing out water, ice and other volatiles – are more common: found on asteroids and moons, like Enceladus’ plumes!

Finally, we return to somewhere closer to home! The Moon has signs of plentiful volcanic activity… from aeons ago! Although the moon is currently inactive, in its distant past, shortly after its formation, it would have appeared a fiery ball of lava in the sky! The accepted theory of the Moon’s formation involves a huge collision sending molten rock skywards. While cooling, the moon would have been very volcanically active, especially due to the frequent asteroid showers that inputted further energy! This resulted in floods of runny floods of basaltic lava, which hardened into lunar maria and left tunnels that could house future human colonies! 

On earth, volcanoes are a beautiful yet deadly characteristic of a healthy planet: a vital factor in the origins and evolution of life! Their existence in space adds a further dimension to research and experience, which I find utterly fascinating!

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Congratulations again to Jade who is our third Soph talks science competition winner!

You can check out our other competition winners here:

JaydenEmilyDK

Did you know about ‘space volcanoes’? What else would you like to know about them?

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