Sustained eruptions on Enceladus explained by turbulent dissipation in tiger stripes

Publication Year


Journal Article

Eruptions on the ice moon Enceladus provide access to materials from Enceladus’ ocean. The mechanism that drives and sustains the eruptions is unclear, and it is also not known what sets the rate of volcanism. We found that a simple model in which the erupting fissures are underlain by slots that connect the surface to the ocean can explain the observations. In the model, the slots are mostly filled with water, and Saturn tides drive turbulent water flow in the slots whose dissipation produces enough heat to keep slots open. In turn, long-lived water-filled slots drive a volcano-tectonic feedback that buffers the rate of volcanism to approximately the observed value. Our results suggest that the ocean–surface connection on Enceladus may be sustained on million-year timescales.Spacecraft observations suggest that the plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus draw water from a subsurface ocean, but the sustainability of conduits linking ocean and surface is not understood. Observations show eruptions from “tiger stripe” fissures that are sustained (although tidally modulated) throughout each orbit, and since the 2005 discovery of the plumes. Peak plume flux lags peak tidal extension by ∼1 rad, suggestive of resonance. Here, we show that a model of the tiger stripes as tidally flexed slots that puncture the ice shell can simultaneously explain the persistence of the eruptions through the tidal cycle, the phase lag, and the total power output of the tiger stripe terrain, while suggesting that eruptions are maintained over geological timescales. The delay associated with flushing and refilling of O(1)-m-wide slots with ocean water causes erupted flux to lag tidal forcing and helps to buttress slots against closure, while tidally pumped in-slot flow leads to heating and mechanical disruption that staves off slot freezeout. Much narrower and much wider slots cannot be sustained. In the presence of long-lived slots, the 106-y average power output of the tiger stripes is buffered by a feedback between ice melt-back and subsidence to O(1010) W, which is similar to observed power output, suggesting long-term stability. Turbulent dissipation makes testable predictions for the final flybys of Enceladus by Cassini. Our model shows how open connections to an ocean can be reconciled with, and sustain, long-lived eruptions. Turbulent dissipation in long-lived slots helps maintain the ocean against freezing, maintains access by future Enceladus missions to ocean materials, and is plausibly the major energy source for tiger stripe activity.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
3972 – 3975
Date Published
Short Title
Proc Natl Acad Sci USA