Scientists have long considered whether the salty, global ocean below Europa's icy shell makes the moon one of the planetary bodies in the solar system most likely to have conditions that could sustain life.
U.S. and German researchers have used magnetometer data and observations of Europa's icy surface to reveal oceanic conditions below the ice. Regions of disrupted ice on the surface, known as chaos terrains, could result from convection in Europa's ice shell, accelerated by heat from the ocean, they said.
Warm rising ocean currents near the equator and subsiding currents in latitudes closer to the poles could account for the location of chaos terrains and other features of Europa's surface, they said.
"The processes we are modeling on Europa remind us of processes on Earth," lead study author Krista Soderlund of the University of Texas, Austin, said.
Similar processes have been observed in patterns creating marine ice in parts of Antarctica.
The findings suggest Europa's oceans are very important as a controlling influence on the moon's surface ice shell, they said.
"That means more evidence that the ocean is there, that it's active, and there are interesting interactions between the ocean and ice shell," study co-author Britney Schmidt of the Georgia Institute of Technology said, "all of which makes us think about the possibility of life on Europa."