The effects of internal heating and large scale variations on tectonic bi-stability in terrestrial planets

New student paper out! Matt Weller, publishing in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, finds that planets migrate through tectonic states over time as their surface temperatures change. A planet even can have multiple stable tectonic states over time! [article]


We use 3D mantle convection and planetary tectonics models to explore the links between tectonic regimes and the level of internal heating within the mantle of a planet (a proxy for thermal age), planetary surface temperature, and lithosphere strength. At both high and low values of internal heating, for moderate to high lithospheric yield strength, hot and cold stagnant-lid (single plate planet) states prevail. For intermediate values of internal heating, multiple stable tectonic states can exist. In these regions of parameter space, the specific evolutionary path of the system has a dominant role in determining its tectonic state. For low to moderate lithospheric yield strength, mobile-lid behavior (a plate tectonic-like mode of convection) is attainable for high degrees of internal heating (i.e., early in a planet’s thermal evolution). However, this state is sensitive to climate driven changes in surface temperatures. Relatively small increases in surface temperature can be sufficient to usher in a transition from a mobile- to a stagnant-lid regime. Once a stagnant-lid mode is initiated, a return to mobile-lid is not attainable by a reduction of surface temperatures alone. For lower levels of internal heating, the tectonic regime becomes less sensitive to surface temperature changes. Collectively our results indicate that terrestrial planets can alternate between multiple tectonic states over giga-year timescales. Within parameter space regions that allow for bi-stable behavior, any model-based prediction as to the current mode of tectonics is inherently non-unique in the absence of constraints on the geologic and climatic histories of a planet.

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