Scientists Find Clues of Plate Tectonics on Mars

by Jenny Winder on August 17, 2012

Caption: Valles Marineris NASA World Wind Map Mars Credit: NASA

Until now, Earth was thought to be the only planet with plate tectonics. But a huge “crack” in Mars’ surface — the massive Valles Marinaris — shows evidence of the movement of huge crustal plates beneath the planet’s surface, meaning Mars may be showing the early stages of plate tectonics. This discovery can perhaps also shed light on how the plate tectonics process began here on Earth.

Valles Marineris is no ordinary crack on the Martian surface. It is the longest and deepest system of canyons in the Solar System. Stretching nearly 2,500 miles, it is nine times longer than Earth’s Grand Canyon.

An Yin, a planetary geologist and UCLA professor of Earth and space sciences, analyzed satellite images from THEMIS (Thermal Emission Imaging System), on board the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, and from the HIRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“When I studied the satellite images from Mars, many of the features looked very much like fault systems I have seen in the Himalayas and Tibet, and in California as well, including the geomorphology,” he said.

The two plates that Yin calls Valles Marineris North and Valles Marineris South are moving approximately 93 miles horizontally relative to each other. By comparison, California’s San Andreas Fault, which is similarly over the intersection of two plates, has moved about twice as much, because Earth is about twice the size of Mars.

Yin believes Mars has no more than two plates whereas Earth has seven major plates and dozens of smaller ones. As Yin puts it “Earth has a very broken ‘egg shell,’ so its surface has many plates; Mars’ is slightly broken and may be on the way to becoming very broken, except its pace is very slow due to its small size and, thus, less thermal energy to drive it. This may be the reason Mars has fewer plates than on Earth.”

Mars also has several long, straight chains of volcanoes, including three that make up the Tharsis Montes, three large shield volcanoes which includes Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the Solar System at 22 km high. These volcanic chains may have formed from the motion of a plate sitting over a “hot spot” in the Martian mantle, in the same way the Hawaiian Islands are thought to have formed here on Earth. Yin also identified a steep cliff similar to cliffs in California’s Death Valley, which are generated by a fault, as well as a very smooth and flat side of a canyon wall which Yin says is also strong evidence of tectonic activity.

Yin also suggests that the fault is shifting occasionally, and may even produce “Marsquakes” every now and again. “I think the fault is probably still active, but not every day. It wakes up every once in a while, over a very long duration — perhaps every million years or more,” he said.

It is not known how far beneath the surface the plates on Mars are located. Yin admits “I don’t quite understand why the plates are moving with such a large magnitude or what the rate of movement is; maybe Mars has a different form of plate tectonics,” Yin said. “The rate is much slower than on Earth.”

“Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics,” Yin added. “It gives us a glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth.”

Yin’s study was published in the August issue of the journal Lithosphere and he also plans to publish a follow-up paper hoping to shed more light on plate tectonics on both Mars and Earth.

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