Volcanism on the Moon

By Robert Wickman


The Earth's Moon has no large volcanoes like Hawaii or Mount St. Helens. However, vast plains of basaltic lavas cover much of the lunar surface. The earliest astronomers thought, wrongly, that these plains were seas of lunar water. Thus, they were called " mare " (pronounced "mahr-ay"). Mare means "sea" in Latin. In addition, other volcanic features also occur within the lunar mare. The most important are sinuous rilles , dark mantling deposits,and small volcanic domes and cones . Most of these features are fairly small, however. They form only a tiny fraction of the lunar volcanic record.



1. Oceanus Procellarum 2. Mare Imbrium 3. Mare Cognitum 4. Mare Humorum
5. Mare Nubium 6. Mare Frigoris 7. Mare Serenitatis 8. Mare Vaporum
9. Mare Tranquillitatis 10. Mare Nectaris 11. Mare Humboldtianum 12. Mare Crisium
13. Mare Fecunditatis 14. Mare Marginis 15. Mare Smythii 16. Mare Australe
17. Mare Moscoviense 18. Mare Ingenii 19. Mare Orientale


Differences from Earth:

Volcanism on the Moon differs in several ways from volcanism on the Earth. First, there is the matter of age. Volcanism on the Earth is an ongoing process. Many of Earth's volcanoes are quite young in geologic terms, often less than a few 100,000 years old. In contrast, most volcanism on the Moon appears to have occurred between 3 and 4 billion years ago. Typical mare samples are ~3,500,000,000 years old. Even the youngest mare flows have estimated ages of nearly 1 billion years. These "young" rocks have not been sampled or directly dated, however, so this age is very poorly known. For comparison, the oldest dated rock on the Earth is ~3.9 billion years old. The oldest sea floor basalts on Earth are only about 200 million (0.2 billion) years old. Because the Moon does not show any evidence for recent volcanic or geologic activity, it is sometimes called a "dead" planet.


The settings of mare volcanism reveal another major difference from volcanism on the Earth. Specifically, Earth's volcanoes mostly occur within long linear mountain chains. Mountain chains like the Andes mark the edge of a lithospheric plate. Mountain chains like the Hawaiian Islands mark past plate movements over a mantle hotspot. In contrast, the mare typically occur in the bottoms of very large, very old impact craters. Thus, most of the mare are nearly circular in shape. Further, lunar mountain chains form the edges of these impact basins and tend to surround the lunar mare. There is no evidence that any system of plate tectonics ever developed on the Moon. Finally, the lunar mare are primarily found on one side of the Moon. They cover nearly one third of the lunar nearside (see figure), but less than 2% of the lunar farside. The surface is much higher on the farside, however, and the crust is typically much thicker there as well. Thus, the primary factors controlling volcanism on the Moon appear to be surface elevation and crustal thickness.


Finally, there are some major physical differences between volcanism on the Earth and on the Moon. First, lunar gravity is only one sixth that of the Earth's. This means that the forces driving lava flow are weaker on the Moon. Thus, the very flat and smooth mare surfaces imply that mare lavas were very fluid. They could both flow very easily and spread out over large areas. Also, the low gravity means that explosive eruptions can throw debris further on the Moon than on the Earth. Indeed, such eruptions on the Moon should spread lavas out into a broad flat layer and not into the cone-shaped features seen on the Earth. This gives one reason for why large volcanoes are not seen on the Moon. Second, the Moon has essentially no dissolved water. The lunar mare are all bone dry. In contrast, water is one of the most common gases in Earth lavas. Water also plays a major role in driving violent eruptions on the Earth. Thus, the lack of lunar water should strongly affect lunar volcanism. In particular, without water, violent explosive eruptions are much less likely on the Moon. Instead, lavas should just flow smoothly and quietly out onto the surface.