Global Volcanism on Mercury at About 3.8 Ga
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Smooth plains occupy c. 27% of the surface of Mercury. Embayment relations, spectral contrast with surroundings, and morphologic characteristics indicate that the majority of these plains are volcanic. The largest deposits are located in Mercury's northern hemisphere and include the extensive northern plains (NP) and the Caloris interior and exterior plains (with the latter likely including basin material). Both the NP and Caloris deposits are, within statistical error, the same age (~3.8–3.9 Ga). To test whether this age reflects a period of global volcanism on Mercury, we determined crater size–frequency distributions for four smooth plains units in the planet's southern hemisphere interpreted to be volcanic. Two deposits are situated within the Beethoven and Tolstoj impact basins; two are located close to the Debussy and the Alver and Disney basins, respectively. Each deposit hosts two populations of craters, one that postdates plains emplacement and one that consists of partially to nearly filled craters that predate the plains. This latter population indicates that some time elapsed between formation of the underlying basement and plains volcanism, though we cannot statistically resolve this interval at any of the four sites. Nonetheless, we find that the age given by the superposed crater population in each case is ~3.8 Ga, and crater density values are consistent with those for the NP and Caloris plains. This finding supports a global phase of volcanism near the end of the late heavy bombardment of Mercury and may indicate a period of widespread partial melting of Mercury’s mantle. Notably, superposition relations between smooth plains, degraded impact structures, and contractional landforms suggest that by this time interior cooling had already placed Mercury’s lithosphere in horizontal compression, tending to inhibit voluminous dike-fed volcanism such as that inferred responsible for the NP. Most smooth plains units, including the Caloris plains and our four study sites, are spatially associated with impact structures; even the NP lie in a regional depression that may be impact-related. Because impacts remove overburden, deposit subsurface heat, and relax pre-existing stress, basins and craters may represent preferential sites for volcanic resurfacing on a globally contracting planet.