Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms. Today’s Sciency Word is:
Here on Earth, we have earthquakes. Lots and lots of earthquakes. And that’s very odd.
Maybe we should be thankful for all those earthquakes. Our planet’s system of plate tectonics is unique in the Solar System. Frequent earthquakes are a sign that Earth’s tectonic plates are still moving, that our planet is still geologically healthy. The alternative would be stagnant lid tectonics, and that’s something we Earthlings probably don’t want.
In this 1996 paper, planetary scientists V.S. Solomatov and L.N. Moresi coined the term “stagnant lid” to describe what was happening on Venus—or rather what was not happening. Venus doesn’t have active plate tectonics. Maybe she did once, long ago. If so, Venus’s plates somehow got stuck together, forming a rigid, inflexible shell.
The term stagnant lid has since been applied to almost every other planetary body in the Solar System, with the obvious exceptions of the four gas giants, and the possible exceptions of two of Jupiter’s moons: Europa and Ganymede.
According to this paper from Geoscience Frontiers, neither Europa nor Ganymede have truly Earth-like plate tectonics, but something similar may be happening. The authors of that paper refer to the situation on Europa and Ganymede as “fragmented lid tectonics” or “ice floe tectonics.” The upcoming Europa Clipper and JUICE missions should tell us more about how similar or different this is to Earth’s plate tectonics.
A stagnant lid does not necessarily mean that a planet or moon is geologically dead. Venus and Io both have active volcanoes, for example, and it was recently confirmed that Mars has marsquakes. But none of these stagnant lid worlds seem to be as lively as Earth—and I mean that in more ways than one.
If you buy into the Rare Earth Hypothesis, plate tectonics is one of those features that makes Earth so rare. Plate tectonics is something Earth has that other planets don’t, and thus it may be an important factor in why Earth can support life when so many other worlds can’t.