Lava tubes on Earth, Moon and Mars: A review on their size and morphology revealed by comparative planetology

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Earth-Science Reviews


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Sinuous collapse chains and skylights in lunar and Martian volcanic regions have often been interpreted as collapsed lava tubes (also known as pyroducts). This hypothesis has fostered a forty years debate among planetary geologists trying to define if analogue volcano-speleogenetic processes acting on Earth could have created similar subsurface linear voids in extra-terrestrial volcanoes. On Earth lava tubes are well known thanks to speleological exploration and mapping in several shield volcanoes, with examples showing different genetic processes (inflation and overcrusting) and morphometric characters. On the Moon subsurface cavities have been inferred from several skylights in Maria smooth plains and corroborated using gravimetry and radar sounder, while on Mars several deep skylights have been identified on lava flows with striking similarities with terrestrial cases. Nonetheless, the literature on this topic is scattered and often presents inaccuracies in terminology and interpretation. A clear understanding of the potential morphologies and dimensions of Martian and lunar lava tubes remains elusive. Although it is still impossible to gather direct information on the interior of Martian and lunar lava tube candidates, scientists have the possibility to investigate their surface expression through the analysis of collapses and skylight morphology, morphometry and their arrangement, and compare these findings with terrestrial analogues. In this review the state of the art on terrestrial lava tubes is outlined in order to perform a morphological and morphometric comparison with lava tube candidate collapse chains on Mars and the Moon. By comparing literature and speleological data from terrestrial analogues and measuring lunar and Martian collapse chains on satellite images and digital terrain models (DTMs), this review sheds light on tube size, depth from surface, eccentricity and several other morphometric parameters among the three different planetary bodies. The dataset here presented indicates that Martian and lunar tubes are 1 to 3 orders of magnitude more voluminous than on Earth, and suggests that the same processes of inflation and overcrusting were active on Mars, while deep inflation and thermal entrenchment was the predominant mechanism of emplacement on the Moon. Even with these outstanding dimensions (with total volumes exceeding 1 billion of m3), lunar tubes remain well within the roof stability threshold. The analysis shows that aside of collapses triggered by impacts/tectonics, most of the lunar tubes could be intact, making the Moon an extraordinary target for subsurface exploration and potential settlement in the wide protected and stable environments of lava tubes.


Lava tube, Inflation, Subsurface, Comparative planetology, Volcanospeleology

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