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Creation 35(4):54–55, October 2013

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The violent volcanoes of Io


© iStockphoto.com/Beboy_Itdviolent-volcanoes

A moon of Jupiter slightly bigger than our moon shocked scientists in 1979 when Voyager cameras detected a volcanic plume in action. In the 34 years since, Io has never had a quiet day. It’s the most volcanically active body in the solar system—100 times more active than the earth. Io is a major mystery for believers in billions of years, but not for those who accept the biblical time frame.

This is a world that, if it were really old, should be freezing—not only on the outside, because of being far away from the sun, but on the inside, too. Smaller bodies cool down much more quickly than big ones, and Io is quite tiny on a solar system scale. So even taking radioactive decay into account, Io’s interior should have become cold a long time ago. Yet it is incredibly active volcanically, and keeps spewing out the hottest lavas known.

The iconic Yellowstone National Park in the US is well known for its active volcanism, including geysers and bubbling hot springs. This generates heat at the surface of about 2 watts per square metre.1 Yet Io’s average heat output is 3 watts per square metre, about 50% more than Yellowstone.2 That’s from pole to pole and on both day and night sides—an astonishing 90,000 gigawatts overall.3

The lack of impact craters all over the surface suggests that this volcanic activity has been going on continuously for some time, filling or erasing all previous signs of impact. Every square metre of Io seems to have been resurfaced by eruptive material.

One scientist calculated in 2003 that if Io had been erupting over ‘geologic time’ (i.e. the assumed billions of years) at only 10% its current rate, it would have erupted its entire mass 40 times over by now.4

The Galileo spacecraft sent back spectacular images of lava lakes and plumes during its 8-year tour of Jupiter from 1995 to 2003. One particular plume near Io’s north pole was very active in 1999. The New Horizons spacecraft flew by Io in 2007, finding a plume shooting 320 km from that same vent eight years later. Galileo observed one plume nearly 600 km (370 miles) high. Escaping material from these eruptions forms a large donut-shaped ring, or torus, around Jupiter. This charged torus is strong enough to affect the magnetosphere of the giant planet.

How do evolutionists explain Io?


The usual answer involves tidal friction. Like a rubber ball that warms up when squeezed in your hand, Io is squeezed by the gravity of Jupiter and its neighbouring moon Europa. This creates ‘land tides’ on the order of a few hundreds of metres per orbit. Calculations show, however, that the tidal energy is too low to produce the observed heat output. A series of papers on ‘Io after Galileo’ in Icarus (May 2004) could not come to a satisfying solution to these problems. If tidal mechanisms provided easy answers, they wouldn’t be suggesting we may be seeing Io at a lucky time,3 the only ‘escape route’ for long-age belief left, however lame.

A Jet Propulsion Laboratory press release in June 2012 said that the pattern of heat “disposes of the generally-accepted model of internal heating.” Just this year, a NASA press release stated that the volcanic vents are “significantly displaced” by 30–60° from where tidal heating models say they should be.5

Some of these tidal pumping models require the crust to be mushy. But this little moon has mountain ranges rivaling the Rockies and Himalayas. One of them exceeds 17 km, nearly twice the height of Mt Everest. Yet a mushy crust could not support such high mountains.

A further problem

Moreover, some of the lava, at around 1340°C,6 is hotter than lavas on earth. This indicates that it would be what is known as ultramafic lava, rich in elements like iron and magnesium, and very low in silica (<45%). More silicate-rich lavas are normally 1200°C at most. But this creates another conundrum, because the ultramafic rocks are very dense—Earth’s mantle, under the crust, is composed of ultramafic rocks. So over the evolutionary time scale, one would expect the denser materials to sink to the core, leaving a crust of lighter material that would prevent the eruption of this hot, heavy lava.4

Meanwhile, Io continues to challenge old-age beliefs. A record outburst on 22 February 2001 was the largest ever seen in the solar system. It covered a thousand times the area of the active volcano Mt Etna in Sicily. This one outburst rivalled all of Io’s other volcanoes put together. Another big burst occurred less than a month later at a different location. There was a further ‘superburst’ in March 2003; yet another in 2006 measured at 7.7 trillion watts.7 It would not be reasonable to assume that these were unusual or rare events in its history. I.e., that by sheer ‘fluke’ we happened to be in that time in the moon’s life when we see it ‘caught in the act’, as the title of one Nature article (referred to earlier) put it.3

Within a biblical timeframe of 6,000 years since its creation, Io could be gradually cooling from even greater activity at its beginning. It is unreasonable, however, to expect it to have been erupting at anything like this level for billions of years. Among many evidences of youth in the solar system, Io is one of the most spectacular.

Posted on homepage: 15 December 2014

References and notes

  1. Questions About Heat Flow and Geothermal Energy at Yellowstone, US Geological Society, volcanoes.usgs.gov, 29 November 2012. Return to text.
  2. Veeder, J. et al., The polar contribution to the heat flow of Io, Icarus 169(1):264–270, May 2004 | doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2003.11.016. Return to text.
  3. McKee, M., Planetary Science: Caught in the Act, Nature 493(7434):592–596, 31 January 2013 | doi:10.1038/493592a. Return to text.
  4. McEwen, A.S., Active Volcanism on Io, Science 297(5590):2220–2221, 27 September 2002| doi: 10.1126/science.1076908. Return to text.
  5. Neal-Jones, N and Steigerwald, B, Scientists to Io: your volcanoes are in the wrong place, nasa.gov, 4 April 2013. Return to text.
  6. Keszthelyi, L. et al. a, , New estimates for Io eruption temperatures: Implications for the interior, Icarus 192( 2):491–502, 15 December 2007 | doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2007.07.008. Return to text.
  7. Laver, C. et al., Tvashtar awakening detected in April 2006 with OSIRIS at the W.M. Keck Observatory, Icarus 191(2): 749–754, 15 November 2007 | doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2007.06.022. Return to text.