Venus is very similar to Earth if one looks at the planet’s size, its mass, chemical composition and the presence of an atmosphere with clouds, and for a very long time it was believed this “twin planet” could host even life. Still, unlike Earth, the Venusian atmosphere is composed of 95 percent carbon dioxide, with traces of nitrogen and toxic gases, resulting in acid rain, a crushing surface pressure of 90 bars and a temperature above ground hot enough to melt lead and zinc.
Volcanic activity lasting hundreds to thousands of centuries and erupting massive amounts of material may have helped transform Venus from a temperate and wet world to the acidic hothouse it is today, a new study suggests.
On Earth, large igneous provinces are the products of periods of large-scale volcanism lasting tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of years. They can deposit more than 100,000 cubic miles of volcanic rock onto the surface – enough molten rock to bury entire areas of continents. Venus experienced similar volcanic periods on a planetary scale.
The study also discusses how large igneous provinces in Earth’s history caused climate change resulting in several mass extinctions on our own planet millions of years ago.
“By understanding the record of large igneous provinces on Earth and Venus, we can determine if these events may have caused Venus’ present condition,” said lead author Dr. Michael J. Way, of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.
Venus today boasts surface temperatures of around 300 degrees on average, and an atmosphere 90 times the surface pressure of Earth’s. According to the study, these massive volcanic outpourings may have initiated these conditions sometime in Venus’ ancient history. In particular, the occurrence of several such eruptions in a short span of geologic time (within a million years) could have led to a runaway greenhouse effect which kicked off the planet’s transition from wet and temperate to hot and dry.
Large fields of solidified volcanic rock cover 80 percent of Venus’ surface in total, Way said. “While we’re not yet sure how often the events which created these fields occurred, we should be able to narrow it down by studying Earth’s own history.”
Life on Earth has endured at least five major mass extinction events since the origin of multicellular life about 540 million years ago, each of which wiped out more than 50 percent of animal life across the planet. According to this study and others before it, the majority of these extinction events were caused or exacerbated by the kinds of eruptions that produce large igneous provinces. In Earth’s case, the climate disruptions from these events were not sufficient to cause a runaway greenhouse effect as they were on Venus, for reasons that Way and other scientists are still working to determine.
NASA’s next missions to Venus, scheduled for launch in in 2027 and 2029 – the Venus Emissivity, Radio science, InSAR, Topography, And Spectroscopy (VERITAS) mission followed by the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) mission – aim to study the origin, history, and present state of Venus in unprecedented detail.
“A primary goal of DAVINCI is to narrow down the history of water on Venus and when it may have disappeared, providing more insight into how Venus’ climate has changed over time,” Way said.
The DAVINCI mission will precede VERITAS, an orbiter designed to investigate the surface and interior of Venus from high above, to better understand its volcanic and volatile history and thus Venus’ path to its current state. The data from both missions could help scientists to narrow down the exact record of how Venus may have transitioned from wet and temperate to dry and sweltering. It may also help us to better understand how volcanism here on Earth has affected life in the past, and how it may continue to do so in the future.
The paper “Large-scale Volcanism and the Heat Death of Terrestrial Worlds” is published in The Planetary Science Journal (2022). Material provided by Nick Oakes, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.