Incredibly dense, visually opaque and loaded with caustic sulfuric acid, Venus’ atmosphere oppresses a scorched, rocky surface baking in planet-wide 425 ºC (800 ºF) temperatures. Although volcanoes have been mapped on our neighboring planet’s surface, some scientists believe the majority of them have been inactive — at least since the last few hundreds of thousands of years. Now, thanks to NASA’s Pioneer Venus and ESA’s Venus Express orbiters, scientists have nearly 40 years of data on Venus’ atmosphere — and therein lies evidence of much more recent large-scale volcanic activity.
The last six years of observations by Venus Express have shown a marked rise and fall of the levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2) in Venus’ atmosphere, similar to what was seen by NASA’s Pioneer Venus mission from 1978 to 1992.
These spikes in SO2 concentrations could be the result of volcanoes on the planet’s surface, proving that the planet is indeed volcanically active — but then again, they could also be due to variations in Venus’ complex circulation patterns which are governed by its rapid “super-rotating” atmosphere.
“If you see a sulphur dioxide increase in the upper atmosphere, you know that something has brought it up recently, because individual molecules are destroyed there by sunlight after just a couple of days,” said Dr. Emmanuel Marcq of Laboratoire Atmosphères in France, lead author of the paper, “Evidence for Secular Variations of SO2 above Venus’ Clouds Top,” published in the Dec. 2 edition of Nature Geoscience.
“A volcanic eruption could act like a piston to blast sulphur dioxide up to these levels, but peculiarities in the circulation of the planet that we don’t yet fully understand could also mix the gas to reproduce the same result,” added co-author Dr Jean-Loup Bertaux, Principal Investigator for the instrument on Venus Express.