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Double ridge formation over shallow water sills on Jupiter’s moon Europa

Jupiter’s moon Europa is a prime candidate for extraterrestrial habitability in our solar system. The surface landforms of its ice shell express the subsurface structure, dynamics, and exchange governing this potential. Double ridges are the most common surface feature on Europa and occur across every sector of the moon, but their formation is poorly understood, with current hypotheses providing competing and incomplete mechanisms for the development of their distinct morphology. Here we present the discovery and analysis of a double ridge in Northwest Greenland with the same gravity-scaled geometry as those found on Europa. Using surface elevation and radar sounding data, we show that this double ridge was formed by successive refreezing, pressurization, and fracture of a shallow water sill within the ice sheet. If the same process is responsible for Europa’s double ridges, our results suggest that shallow liquid water is spatially and temporally ubiquitous across Europa’s ice shell.

Jupiter’s icy moon Europa harbors a global subsurface ocean beneath an outer ice shell. The thickness and thermophysical structure of this ice shell are poorly constrained, but models suggest it may be 20–30 km thick with a layer of warm, convecting ice underlying a cold, rigid crust. The detailed structure and dynamics of its ice shell and the timescales over which they evolve are critical for understanding both the fundamental geophysical processes and habitability of Europa. Some of the primary observational constraints on these subsurface processes are their expressions in the surface morphologies imaged by Voyager and Galileo.

Comparison of the ranges of Greenland and satellite Europe.

Europa’s surface is young and geologically active, displaying a wide variety of landforms including ridges, troughs, bands, lenticulae, and chaos terrain. Of these, double ridges are the most common, consisting of quasi-symmetric ridge pairs flanking a medial trough, with height to peak-to-peak distance ratios <0.5817. These ridges may extend for hundreds of kilometers and include some of the oldest features visible on the surface, with frequent cross-cutting implying numerous formation cycles over Europa’s history. Cycloidal ridges and ridge complexes share many of these characteristics and along-strike transitions between ridge morphologies are not uncommon, suggesting that a single process may be active in the formation of all ridge types. Proposed formation mechanisms for double ridges fall into six categories: cryovolcanism, tidal squeezing, diapirism, compression, dike intrusion or ice wedging, and shear heating. All of these mechanisms require ice-shell fracture and, with the exception of compression and diapirism, all invoke near-surface ice-water interactions, either through internal melting or direct injection from the subsurface ocean.

Ridge formation process

More recently, a number of extensions to the explosive cryovolcanism hypothesis have been proposed, in part to address the difficulty of driving negatively buoyant ocean water directly to the surface. These models suggest that double ridges may instead form above shallow, crystallizing water bodies, such as sills or dikes, within the ice shell, rather than by direct connection to the subsurface ocean. Such mechanisms are more consistent with morphometric analyses that both disfavor compressional formation models and support the presence of subsurface water reservoirs beneath ridges. These models have much in common with formation mechanisms for lenticulae, chaos, and cratered terrain that invoke the emplacement and refreezing of shallow water bodies to explain the observed doming, surface disruption, or collapse. This growing body of work suggests that shallow water may be critical, not only to double ridge formation, but also to Europan ice-shell dynamics, exchange, and ultimately habitability.

Analogs for double ridges or confined shallow water bodies from the terrestrial cryosphere could place powerful constraints on this hypothesis space for Europa. Sea-ice pressure ridges and some ice rise divides bear a qualitative resemblance to Europa’s double ridges, but the pressure ridge analog assumes a very thin ice shell and ice divides express a flow regime entirely dissimilar to the Europan environment. Similarly, subglacial volcanic craters and ice shelf brine infiltration have been invoked as analogs for pressurized ice-water interactions, but neither fully captures the physics of refreezing water bodies confined within an ice matrix.

Here, we present an icy double ridge discovered on the Greenland Ice Sheet with the same gravity-scaled geometry as Europa’s double ridges. High-resolution ice penetrating radar observations reveal that this ridge is underlain by a shallow refreezing water sill and provide a direct window into the subsurface processes that drove its formation.


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