Underground Acquifers Fed Long-Lived Oceans, Lakes on Ancient Mars

by Nancy Atkinson on October 19, 2010

Artist's impression of water under the Martian surface. If underground aquifers really do exist, the implications for human exploration and eventual colonization of the red planet would be far-reaching. (Illustration: ESA)

Images from the spacecraft orbiting Mars seem to indicate the Red Planet may once have had oceans and lakes, and researchers are still trying to figure out how these bodies of water could have developed. A new explanation is that underground aquifers fed water to the surface, forming the floors of ancient continental-scale basins on Mars. The groundwater emerged through extensive and widespread fractures, leading to the formation of river systems, large-scale regional erosion, sedimentary deposition and water ponding in widespread and long-lasting bodies of water in Mars northern plains.

J. Alexis Palmero Rodriguez, research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute PSI, has been studying the Martian northern lowlands region, finding extensive sedimentary deposits that resemble the abyssal plains of Earth’s ocean floors. It is also like the floors of other basins on Mars where oceans are thought to have developed.

The origin of these deposits and the formation of Martian lakes and seas has been a controversial subject over the years. One theory is that there was a sudden release of large volumes of water and sediment from zones of apparent crustal collapse known as “chaotic terrains.” However, these zones of collapse are on the whole rare on Mars, while the plains deposits are widespread and common within large basin settings, Rodriguez said.

From evidence in the planet’s northern plains (south of Gemini Scopuli in Planum Boreum), Rodriguez’ new model does not require sudden massive groundwater discharges. Instead, it advocates for groundwater discharges being widespread, long-lived and common in the northern plains of Mars.

Large gully on Mars, seen by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

“With the loss over time of water from the subsurface aquifer, areas of the northern plains ultimately collapsed, creating the rough hilly surfaces we see today. Some plateaus may have avoided this fate and preserved sedimentary plains containing an immense record of hydrologic activity,” Rodriguez said. “The geologic record in the collapsed hilly regions would have been jumbled and largely lost.

“This model implies that groundwater discharges within basin settings on Mars may have been frequent and led to formation of mud pools, lakes and oceans. In addition, our model indicates this could have happened at any point in the planet’s history,” he said. “There could have been many oceans on Mars over time.”

If life existed in Martian underground systems, life forms could have been brought up to the surface via the discharges of these deep-seated fluids. Organisms and their fossils may therefore be preserved within some of these sedimentary strata, Rodriguez said.

His paper was published in the journal Icarus.

Source: Planetary Science Institute

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Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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