Limnological Structure of Titan's Hydrocarbon Lakes and Its Astrobiological Implication


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January 2009


Cassini radar recently detected several putative liquid hydrocarbon lakes in the polar region of Saturn's moon Titan. Such lakes may contain organic sediments deposited from the atmosphere that would promote prebiotic-type chemistry driven by cosmic rays, the result of which could be the production of more complex molecules such as nitrogen-bearing organic polymer or azides. The physical properties of the lake and their temporal evolution under Titan's present climatic setting were investigated by means of a one-dimensional lake thermal stratification model. Lakes can undergo various evolutions, depending on the initial composition and depth of the lake and hydrocarbon abundance in the near-surface atmosphere. Pure methane ponds, which may occasionally form when heavy methane hailstones reach the surface, would be transitory in that they would evaporate, freeze up, and eventually dry up. On the other hand, lakes filled with a mixture of methane, ethane, and nitrogen would be more stable; and freezing or drying would not necessarily occur in most cases. Such lakes undergo a seasonal cycle of thermal stratification in spring and early summer and convective overturning in other seasons. The summer thermal stratification near the lake surface could be destabilized by bottom heating as a result of an enhanced geothermal heat flux, e.g., in the vicinity of cryovolcanoes. Most likely the composition of the lake and atmosphere would come to equilibrium by way of a small amount of evaporation, but the lake-atmosphere system could be repeatedly brought out of equilibrium by irregular precipitation. The viability of prebiotic-like chemistry in the lake may depend on many lake parameters, such as temperature, liquid or frozen state, and convective mixing. Moreover, convective mixing may drive suspension of solid acetylene and other sediments on the lake bottom and redistribution of dissolved gases, which might be relevant for putative life-forms that consume hydrogen and solid acetylene. Astrobiology 9, 147–164.


Titan, Hydrocarbon Lakes, Limnology, Prebiotic Chemistry

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Astrobiology, Vol. 9, no. 2 (2009).