Regional variations in observed fracture abundance and associated predictions for smaller fractures on Europa with implications for regional plume origins

Claire A. Mondro, Jeffrey E. Moersch, Josh Emery, William M. Dunne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Large fractures on Europa's surface have been extensively studied for the insight they provide into the evolution of the satellite's ice shell. The presence of small fractures has not been characterized on a global or regional scale because of the resolution limits in the current image data. However, if smaller fractures are present they could significantly increase the overall fracture abundance and influence the mechanical properties of the ice shell. Regional variability in this abundance would also impact the spatial heterogeneity of ice shell characteristics. To investigate the possible contribution of smaller fractures to the influence of the fracture network on the behavior of the ice lithosphere, we measure the surface length of visible fractures in regions on Europa's surface and calculate their length distributions and fracture intensities. These outcomes are extrapolated, using best-fit functions, to consider the possible abundance and role of smaller fractures in these networks. The analysis of the visible fractures sampled different geologic terrains and geographic regions to consider the effect of terrain type and location. Fracture abundance in observable populations shows some variation with terrain type. However, observable abundance also changes with image resolution, indicating that current data limit the interpretation of visible fracture populations. Typical log-normal, exponential, and power-law fracture network distributions, based on analysis of terrestrial fracture networks, were considered as methods for extrapolating the observed fracture populations. Power-law was found to be the most appropriate extrapolation choice. It was also found to predict observed fracture abundance in one sample region with a smaller sub-region that had locally higher image resolution. Applying a power-law extrapolation for the fracture abundance as a function of length, we predict fracture abundance characteristics that are up to two orders of magnitude higher than abundance of observed fractures, and which vary by an order of magnitude between regions. Thus, the predicted fracture populations indicate that abundant small fractures would contribute significantly to the mechanical behavior of the ice lithosphere and create regional variations in fracture abundance. For example, where they are abundant, these smaller fractures could contribute to fracture networks providing localized migration pathways for plume activity on Europa. New image data from the Europa Clipper mission should enable fracture mapping at smaller scales to refine the roles of these networks and the smaller fractures on Europan lithospheric processes and rheology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number117928
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - Jan 15 2023


  • Europa
  • Europa ice shell
  • fracture abundance
  • fracture length distribution
  • fractures

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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