Hydrocarbon lakes on Titan


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January 2007


The Huygens Probe detected dendritic drainage-like features, methane clouds and a high surface relative humidity on Titan in the vicinity of its landing site [Tomasko, M.G., and 39 colleagues, 2005. Nature 438, 765–778; Niemann, H.B., and 17 colleagues, 2005. Nature 438, 779–784], suggesting sources of methane that replenish this gas against photo- and charged-particle chemical loss on short (10–100) million year timescales [Atreya, S.K., Adams, E.Y., Niemann, H.B., Demick-Montelara, J.E., Owen, T.C., Fulchignoni, M., Ferri, F., Wilson, E.H., 2006. Planet. Space Sci. In press]. On the other hand, Cassini Orbiter remote sensing shows dry and even desert-like landscapes with dunes [Lorenz, R.D., and 39 colleagues, 2006a. Science 312, 724–727], some areas worked by fluvial erosion, but no large-scale bodies of liquid [Elachi, C., and 34 colleagues, 2005. Science 308, 970–974]. Either the atmospheric methane relative humidity is declining in a steady fashion over time, or the sources that maintain the relative humidity are geographically restricted, small, or hidden within the crust itself. In this paper we explore the hypothesis that the present-day methane relative humidity is maintained entirely by lakes that cover a small part of the surface area of Titan. We calculate the required minimum surface area coverage of such lakes, assess the stabilizing influence of ethane, and the implications for moist convection in the atmosphere. We show that, under Titan's surface conditions, methane evaporates rapidly enough that shorelines of any existing lakes could potentially migrate by several hundred m to tens of km per year, rates that could be detected by the Cassini orbiter. We furthermore show that the high relative humidity of methane in Titan's lower atmosphere could be maintained by evaporation from lakes covering only 0.002–0.02 of the whole surface.


Titan, Saturn, Satellites, Surface, Geological Processes, Geophysics

Document Type



Icarus, Vol. 186, no. 2 (2007).