Despite being one of the coldest and most inhospitable places on the planet, the icy steppes of the Almaty region of Kazakhstan have attracted a lot of tourists in recent times, to witness an unusual phenomenon: a small volcano that, instead of lava , water gushes constantly.
With images and videos viralized on the internet, the 14-meter-high ice tower, located between the villages of Kegen and Shyrganak, in the middle of a plateau completely covered with snow, gushes out a continuous stream of water that, due to the local temperature, instantly converts to ice.
Whoever arrives at the place for the first time, has the impression that it is a miniature volcano built to attract attention. But the vision, and the visitation to the place, have already become so commonplace, that they generated a wave of posts on social networks looking for a scientific explanation for the phenomenon.
A recent Instagram post clarifies that the “ice volcano” is actually an underground spring that spouts water all year long. In summer, the fountain causes green flowering for tens of meters around it. But when winter comes, with sub-zero temperatures, the frozen water itself creates the volcano-shaped ice cone that, instead of a flowering meadow, creates a natural ice rink.
Ice volcanoes beyond planet Earth
Ice volcanoes are really cool. Scientists believe they have found these mounds of ice rock – called cryovolcanoes – in several moons, such as Triton, Europe, Titan, as well as the ex-planet Pluto. Perhaps the strangest of all is Ahuna Mons, a lone ice giant half the size of Mount Everest, located on the dwarf planet Ceres. But a new study suggests that Ahuna Mons may not always have been the most lonely volcano in our solar system.
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Isolated mountain on a relatively flat surface, Ahuna Mons was discovered in 2015 by NASA’s Dawn probe, and drew attention for its improbability. Due to its size and location, it is a unique spot in Ceres, and the conditions of the dwarf planet also make it peculiar. Typically, volcanism is found on rocky planets, such as Earth and Mars, but Ceres is composed predominantly of water ice, salts and mud, unexpected components for the formation of volcanism. In addition, previously, scientists never expected to find a volcano on a dwarf planet.
A team of researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson was particularly interested in Ahuna Mons, because, frankly, it is kind of an anomaly. “Imagine if there was only one volcano on the whole Earth, and it was the only thing that had that shape and was made of lava,” Michael Sori, the study’s lead author, told Gizmodo. “That would be very strange, and we would need to come up with an explanation for that.”
The group hypothesized that only one of two scenarios could explain the phenomenon of Ahuna Mons: the first would be that the volcano is really an annex. It’s boring, is not it? But it is the second idea that Sori and his team decided to investigate further. Their findings were accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
“The best explanation, I think, is that there are (or there were) other cryovolcanoes in Ceres throughout history, but that there is some process that either destroyed them completely, or modified them in such a way that they ended up taking an unobvious shape,” said Sori. “Maybe they are still out there and we can identify them, but we need to look for a different type of format.”
So what could have changed (or destroyed) these volcanoes over time. Unlike Earth, Ceres does not have an atmosphere, so natural forces such as wind and rain could not have caused any of the characteristics of the dwarf planet’s surface to erode. Instead, a process called “viscous relaxation” is probably to blame, Sori said. The idea is that, over time, solids, even the ice rock, will flow like a liquid.
“The prediction we make is that in hundreds of millions of years, Ahuna Mons will become smaller in height and width at its base, flattening out on the surface,” said Sori.
Sori and his colleagues created a model to see what the viscous flow in the volcano would look like, testing different levels of water on the ice each time. The team found that Ahuna Mons would need to be made up of at least 40% water ice to be affected by viscous relaxation. “In this composition, Sori estimates that Ahuna Mons would be flattening at a rate of ten to 50 meters every one million years,” said a press release.
It is worth noting that the viscous relaxation probably impacts other parts of Ceres’ topography, including erasing the dwarf planet’s craters. The reason we can see only this cryovolcano and not others in Ceres is that Ahuna Mons is, at most, 200 million years old, according to Sori. In the case of ice volcanoes, she is still quite young.
“Ahuna Mons still has this shape because it is very young and has not had enough time to deform, but the others are older and maybe had time to do that,” said Sori. Although he is quite certain that there have been other cryovolcanoes in Ceres in the past, the next step is to find out how many and where.
The team of scientists already has plans to invest more in the entire area of Ceres, in search of flattened mountains. Sori said that he already has some candidates in mind: “There is still a lot about what we don’t understand when we talk about cryovolcanism. So, I think it will be a very popular subject to study over the next few decades ”.