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Venus tectonics: An overview of Magellan observations


  • Sean C. Solomon,

  • Suzanne E. Smrekar,

  • Duane L. Bindschadler,

  • Robert E. Grimm,

  • William M. Kaula,

  • George E. McGill,

  • Roger J. Phillips,

  • R. Stephen Saunders,

  • Gerald Schubert,

  • Steven W. Squyres,

  • Ellen R. Stofan


The nearly global radar imaging and altimetry measurements of the surface of Venus obtained by the Magellan spacecraft have revealed that deformational features of a wide variety of styles and spatial scales are nearly ubiquitous on the planet. Many areas of Venus record a superposition of different episodes of deformation and volcanism. This deformation is manifested both in areally distributed strain of modest magnitude, such as families of graben and wrinkle ridges at a few to a few tens of kilometers spacing in many plains regions, as well as in zones of concentrated lithospheric extension and shortening. The common coherence of strain patterns over hundreds of kilometers implies that even many local features reflect a crustal response to mantle dynamic processes. Ridge belts and mountain belts, which have characteristic widths and spacings of hundreds of kilometers, represent successive degrees of lithospheric shortening and crustal thickening. The mountain belts of Venus, as on Earth, show widespread evidence for lateral extension both during and following active crustal compression. Venus displays two principal geometrical variations on lithospheric extension: the quasi-circular coronae (75–2600 km diameter) and broad rises with linear rift zones having dimensions of hundreds to thousands of kilometers. Both are sites of significant volcanic flux, but horizontal displacements may be limited to only a few tens of kilometers. Few large-offset strike slip faults have been observed, but limited local horizontal shear is accommodated across many zones of crustal stretching or shortening. Several large-scale tectonic features have extremely steep topographic slopes (in excess of 20°–30°) over a 10-km horizontal scale; because of the tendency for such slopes to relax by ductile flow in the middle to lower crust, such regions are likely to be tectonically active. In general, the preserved record of global tectonics of Venus does not resemble oceanic plate tectonics on Earth, wherein large, rigid plates are separated by narrow zones of deformation along plate boundaries. Rather tectonic strain on Venus typically involves deformation distributed across broad zones tens to a few hundred kilometers wide separated by comparatively undeformed blocks having dimensions of hundreds of kilometers. These characteristics are shared with actively deforming continental regions on Earth. The styles and scales of tectonic deformation on Venus may be consequences of three differences from the Earth: (1) The absence of a hydrological cycle and significant erosion dictates that multiple episodes of deformation are typically well-preserved. (2) A high surface temperature and thus a significantly shallower onset of ductile behavior in the middle to lower crust gives rise to a rich spectrum of smaller-scale deformational features. (3) A strong coupling of mantle convection to the upper mantle portion of the lithosphere, probably because Venus lacks a mantle low-viscosity zone, leads to crustal stress fields that are coherent over large distances. The lack of a global system of tectonic plates on Venus is likely a combined consequence of a generally lesser strength and more limited horizontal mobility of the lithosphere than on Earth.

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