Study of Martian Sedimentary Layers Reveals More About the Planet’s Past

As of 2016, Mars became the permanent residence of no less than eight robotic missions, a combination of orbiters, rovers and landers. Between extensive studies of the Martian atmosphere and surface, scientists have learned a great deal about the planet’s history and evolution. In particular, they have uncovered voluminous amounts of evidence that Mars once had flowing water on its surface.

The most recent evidence to this effect from the University of Texas at Austin, where researchers have produced a study detailing how water deposited sediment in Mars’ Aeolis Dorsa region. According to their research, this area contains extensive sedimentary deposits that act as a historical record of Mars, cataloguing the influence played by water-based erosion over time.

The study, titled “Fluvial Stratigraphy of Valley Fills at Aeolis Dorsa, Mars: Evidence for Base-Level Fluctuations Controlled by a Downstream Water Body“, recently appeared in the scientific journal GeoScienceWorld. Led by Benjamin D. Cardenas – a geologist with the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin – the team examined satellite data of the Aeolis Dorsa region to study the structure of sedimentary deposits.

MOLA Topographic Map of Aeolis Quadrangle (MC-23) on the planet Mars. Credit: USGS

For years, Aeolis Dorsa has been of interest to scientists since it contains some of the most densely-packed sedimentary layers on Mars, which were deposited by flowing water (aka. fluvial deposits). These deposits are visible from orbit because of the way they have undergone a process known as “topographic inversion” – which consists of deposits filling low river channels, then being exhumed to create incised valleys.

By definition, incised valleys are topographic lows produced by “riverine” erosion – i.e. relating to a river or riverbank. On Earth, these valleys are commonly created by rising sea levels, and then filled with sediment as a result of falling sea levels. As sea levels rise, the valleys are cut from the landscape as the waters move inland; and as the sea levels drop, retreating waters deposit sediment within them.

According to the study, this process has created an opportunity for geophysicists and planetary scientist to observe Mars’ geological record in three dimensions and across significant distances. As Cardenas told Universe Today via email:

“Sedimentary rocks in general record information about the environments under which they were deposited. Fluvial (river) deposits specifically record information about the way rivers migrated laterally, the way they aggraded vertically, and how these things changed over time.”
The dotted white arrow points to curved strata recording point bar growth and river migration while the black arrow shows topographically inverted river deposits outcropping as ridges (e.g., black arrow). Credit: hou.usra.edu

Here on Earth, the statigraphy (i.e. the order and position of sedimentary layers) of sedimentary rocks has been used by geologists for generations to place constraints on what conditions were like on our planet billions of years ago. It has only been in recent history that the study of sedimentary layers has been used to place constraints on what environmental conditions were like on other planetary bodies (like Mars) billions of years ago.

However, most of these studies have produced data that has been unable to resolve sedimentary packaging at the sub-meter scale. Instead, satellite images have been used to define large-scale stratigraphic relationships, such as deposition patterns along past water channels. In other words, the studies have focused on cataloging the existence of past water flows on Mars more than what has happened since then.

As Cardenas indicated, he and his team took a different approach, one which considered that Mars has experienced changes over the past 3.5 billion years. As he explained:

“In general, there has been the assumption that a lot of the martian surface is not particularly different than it was 3.5 billion years ago. We make an effort to demonstrate that the modern surface at our study area, Aeolis Dorsa, is the result of burial, exhumation, and un-equal erosion, and it can’t be assumed that the modern surface represents the ancient surface at all. We really try to show that what we see today, the features we can measure today, are sedimentary deposits of rivers, and not actual rivers. This is incredibly important to realize when you start making interpretations of your observations, and it is frequently a missed point.”
Perspective view of Reull Vallis based on images taken by the ESA’s Mars Express. Reull Vallis, a river-like structure, is believed to have formed when running water flowed in the distant martian past. Credit and Copyright: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

For the sake of their research, Cardenas and his team used stereo pairs of high-resolution images and topographic data taken by the Context Camera (CTX) and the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This data was then combined with the Integrated Software for Imagers and Spectrometers (ISIS) –  a digital image-processing package used by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) – and NASA’s Ames Stereo Pipeline.

These processed the paired images into high-resolution topographic data and digital elevation models (DEMs) which were then compared to data from the Mars Orbiting Laser Altimeter (MOLA) instrument aboard the Mars Global Surveyor (MSG). The final result was a series of DEMs that were orders of magnitude higher in terms of resolution than anything previously produced.

For all of this, Cardenas and his colleagues were able to identify stacking patterns in the fluvial deposits, noted changes in sedimentation styles, and suggested mechanisms for their creation. In addition, the team introduced a brand new method to measure the flow direction of the rivers that left these deposits, which allowed them to see how the landscape has changed over the past few billion years.

“The study shows there was a large body of water on Mars ~3.5 billion years ago, and that this body of water increased and decreased in volume slowly enough that river sedimentation had time to adjust styles,” said Cardenas. “This is more in line with slower climatic changes, and less in line with catastrophic hydrologic events. Aeolis Dorsa is positioned along hypothesized coastlines of an ancient northern ocean on Mars. It’s interesting to find coastal river deposits at Aeolis Dorsa, but it doesn’t help us constrain the size of the water body (lake, ocean, etc.)”

Nanedi Valles, a roughly 800-kilometre valley believed to be caused by ground-water outflow. Copyright ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

In essence, Cardenas and his colleagues concluded that – similar to Earth – falling and rising water levels in a large water body forced the formation of the paleo-valleys in their study area. And in a way that is similar to what is happening on Earth today, rivers that formed in coastal regions were strongly influenced by changes in water levels of a large, downstream water body.

For some time, it has been something of a foregone conclusion that the surface of Mars is dead, its features frozen in time. But as this study demonstrated, the landscape has undergone significant changes since it lost its atmosphere and surface water. These findings will no doubt be the subject of interest as we get closer to mounting a crewed mission to the Martian surface.

Further Reading: GSA, GeoScienceWorld

What is a Debris Flow?

Landslide in Guatemala

Landslides constitute one of the most destructive geological hazards in the world today. One of the main reasons for this is because of the high speeds that slides can reach, up to 160 km/hour (100 mph). Another is the fact that these slides can carry quite a bit of debris with them that serve to amplify their destructive force.

Taken together, this is what is known as a Debris Flow, a natural hazard that can take place in many parts of the world. A single flow is capable of burying entire towns and communities, covering roads, causing death and injury, destroying property and bringing all transportation to a halt. So how do we deal with them?

Definition:

A Debris Flow is basically a fast-moving landslide made up of liquefied, unconsolidated, and saturated mass that resembles flowing concrete. In this respect, they are not dissimilar from avalanches, where unconsolidated ice and snow cascades down the surface of a mountain, carrying trees and rocks with it.

Images of a Debris Flow Chute and Deposit, taken by the Arizona Geological Survey (AZGS). Credit: azgs.com
Images of a Debris Flow Chute
and Deposit, taken by the Arizona Geological Survey (AZGS). Credit: azgs.com

A common misconception is to confuse debris flows with landslides or mudflows. In truth, they differ in that landslides are made up of a coherent block of material that slides over surfaces. Debris flows, by contrast, are made up of “loose” particles that move independently within the flow.

Similarly, mud flows are composed of mud and water, whereas debris flows are made up larger particles. All told, it has been estimated that at least 50% of the particles contained within a debris flow are made-up of sand-sized or larger particles (i.e. rocks, trees, etc).

Types of Flows:

There are two types of debris flows, known as Lahar and Jökulhlaup. The word Lahar is Indonesian in origin and has to do with flows that are related to volcanic activity. A variety of factors may trigger a lahar, including melting of glacial ice due to volcanic activity, intense rainfall on loose pyroclastic material, or the outbursting of a lake that was previously dammed by pyroclastic or glacial material.

Jökulhlaup is an Icelandic word which describes flows that originated from a glacial outburst flood. In Iceland, many such floods are triggered by sub-glacial volcanic eruptions, since Iceland sits atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Elsewhere, a more common cause of jökulhlaups is the breaching of ice-dammed or moraine-dammed lakes.

Debris flow channel in Ladakh, NW Indian Himalaya, produced in the storms of August 2010. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/DanHobley
Debris flow channel in Ladakh, near the northwestern Indian Himalaya, produced in the storms of August 2010. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/DanHobley

Such breaching events are often caused by the sudden calving of glacier ice into a lake, which then causes a displacement wave to breach a moraine or ice dam. Downvalley of the breach point, a jökulhlaup may increase greatly in size by picking up sediment and water from the valley through which it travels.

Causes of Flows:

Debris flows can be triggered in a number of ways. Typically, they result from sudden rainfall, where water begins to wash material from a slope, or when water removed material from a freshly burned stretch of land. A rapid snowmelt can also be a cause, where newly-melted snow water is channeled over a steep valley filled with debris that is loose enough to be mobilized.

In either case, the rapidly moving water cascades down the slopes and into the canyons and valleys below, picking up speed and debris as it descends the valley walls. In the valley itself, months’ worth of built-up soil and rocks can be picked up and then begin to move with the water.

As the system gradually picks up speed, a feedback loop ensues, where the faster the water flows, the more it can pick up. In time, this wall begins to resemble concrete in appearance but can move so rapidly that it can pluck boulders from the floors of the canyons and hurl them along the path of the flow. It’s the speed and enormity of these carried particulates that makes a debris flow so dangerous.

Deforestation (like this clearcut in Sumatra, Indonesia) can result in debris flows. Credit: worldwildlife.org
Deforestation (like this clearcut in Sumatra, Indonesia) can result in debris flows. Credit: worldwildlife.org

Another major cause of debris flows is the erosion of steams and riverbanks. As flowing water gradually causes the banks to collapse, the erosion can cut into thick deposits of saturated materials stacked up against the valley walls. This erosion removes support from the base of the slope and can trigger a sudden flow of debris.

In some cases, debris flows originate from older landslides. These can take the form of unstable masses perched atop a steep slope. After being lubricated by a flow of water over the top of the old landslide, the slide material or erosion at the base can remove support and trigger a flow.

Some debris flows occur as a result of wildfires or deforestation, where vegetation is burned or stripped from a steep slope. Prior to this, the vegetation’s roots anchored the soil and removed absorbed water. The loss of this support leads to the accumulation of moisture which can result in structural failure, followed by a flow.

Sarychev volcano, (located in Russia's Kuril Islands, northeast of Japan) in an early stage of eruption on June 12, 2009. Credit: NASA
Sarychev volcano, (located in Russia’s Kuril Islands, northeast of Japan) in an early stage of eruption on June 12, 2009. Credit: NASA

A volcanic eruption can flash melt large amounts of snow and ice on the flanks of a volcano. This sudden rush of water can pick up ash and pyroclastic debris as it flows down the steep volcano and carry them rapidly downstream for great distances.

In the 1877 eruption of Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador, debris flows traveled over 300 kilometers down a valley at an average speed of about 27 kilometers per hour. Debris flows are one of the deadly “surprise attacks” of volcanoes.

Prevention Methods:

Many methods have been employed for stopping or diverting debris flows in the past. A popular method is to construct debris basins, which are designed to “catch” a flow in a depressed and walled area. These are specifically intended to protect soil and water sources from contamination and prevent downstream damage.

Some basins are constructed with special overflow ducts and screens, which allow the water to trickle out from the flow while keeping the debris in place, while also allowing for more room for larger objects. However, such basins are expensive, and require considerable labor to build and maintain; hence why they are considered an option of last resort.

Aerial view of debris-flow deposition resulting in widespread destruction on the Caraballeda fan of the Quebrada San Julián. Credit: US Geological Survey
Aerial view of the destruction caused by a debris-flow in the Venezuelan town of Caraballeda. Credit: US Geological Survey

Currently, there is no way to monitor for the possibility of debris flow, since they can occur very rapidly and are often dependent on cycles in the weather that can be unpredictable. However, early warning systems are being developed for use in areas where debris flow risk is especially high.

One method involves early detection, where sensitive seismographs detect debris flows that have already started moving and alert local communities. Another way is to study weather patterns using radar imaging to make precipitation estimates – using rainfall intensity and duration values to establish a threshold of when and where a flows might occur.

In addition, replanting forests on hillsides to anchor the soil, as well as monitoring hilly areas that have recently suffered from wildfires is a good preventative measure. Identifying areas where debris flows have happened in the past, or where the proper conditions are present, is also a viable means of developing a debris flow mitigation plan.

We have written many articles about landslides for Universe Today. Here’s Satellites Could Predict Landslides, Recent Landslide on Mars, More Recent Landslides on Mars, Landslides and Bright Craters on Ceres Revealed in Marvelous New Images from Dawn.

If you’d like more info on debris flow, check out Visible Earth Homepage. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.

Sources:

Evidence for Active Hollows Formation on Mercury

MESSENGER targeted-observation image of the interior of Eminescu crater

A recent image acquired by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft shows the interior of Eminescu, a youngish 130-km (80 mile) wide crater just north of Mercury’s equator. Eminescu made science headlines last year with MESSENGER’s discovery of curious eroded blotches called “hollows” scattered across its interior and surrounding its central peak, and now it looks like the spacecraft may have spotted some of these strange features in their earliest stages of formation along the inner edge of the crater’s rim.

First announced in September 2011, hollows have now been identified in many areas across Mercury. They had showed up in previous images as only bright spots, but once MESSENGER established orbit in March 2011 and began its high-resolution imaging of Mercury’s surface it soon became clear that these features were something totally new.

The lack of craters within hollows indicates that they are relatively young. It was suggested that they may be the result of an ongoing process on Mercury — a suggestion supported by this recent image, acquired on November 19, 2012.

In addition to the hollows seen in the smooth central part of the crater and around the base of the central peak, there are also some small bright spots visible within the knobby terrain extending from the base of the crater wall (see detail at right). These bright spots could well be very young hollows, revealing a process in action that is, as far as we know, unique to the planet Mercury.

It’s thought that hollows are formed by the solar wind constantly blasting Mercury’s surface, scouring away deposits of volatile materials in its crust that have been left exposed by impacts.

The image above shows an area about 42 km across. Read more on the MESSENGER mission site here.

 Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

 

Were Martian Rocks Weathered by Water?

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There are many ways rocks can be textured. Wind erosion, water erosion, the escape of volcanic gases during their formation (in the case of igneous rocks)… all these forces can create the pitted textures found on many rocks on Earth… and perhaps even on Mars. And according to a report published by a group of planetary geologists led by James Head of Rhode Island’s Brown University, another method may also be at play on Mars: melting snow.

Here on Earth in the hyper-arid dry valleys of Antarctica, water from melting snow erodes the surfaces of dark boulders, creating pitted textures similar to what has been found at many locations on Mars.

In order for that process to be truly analogous, though, a few conditions would have to be met on the red planet. First, the atmospheric pressure must be high enough to allow water to remain – if only temporarily – in a liquid state. Water that instantly boils away won’t have enough time to chemically attack the rock. Second, the rock itself must be at least warm enough to not freeze the water (again, must be liquid.) And third, there must actually be water, snow or frost present.

While one or more of these factors may be currently present in locations on Mars, they have not yet been found to exist all together in the same place. But that’s just what’s been found now… in Mars’ geologic past these may all have very well existed either in isolated locations or perhaps even planet-wide.

The paper’s abstract states:

For example, increases in atmospheric water vapor content (due, for example, to the loss of the south perennial polar CO2 cap) could favor the deposition of snow, which if collected on rocks heated to above the melting temperature during favorable conditions (e.g., perihelion), could cause melting and the type of locally enhanced chemical weathering that can cause pits.

In other words, if the dry ice at Mars’ south pole had melted at one point, freed-up water vapor could have fallen on rocks elsewhere as snow. If Mars were at a point in its orbit closest to the Sun and therefore experiencing warmer temperatures the snow could have then melted – especially upon darker rock surfaces.

Still, it’s possible – or even probable – that the weathering did not occur at a consistent rate across the entire surface of the rocks. Some sides may have weathered faster or slower than others, depending on how they were exposed to the elements. But if there’s one thing Mars has had a surplus of, it’s time. Even if the processes outlined in the report are indeed the cause of Mars’ pitted rocks, they have likely been in play over many hundreds of millions – even billions – of years.

Read the team’s report on the Journal of Geophysical Research here.

Thanks to Stu Atkinson for his color work on the images from Opportunity. Check out his blog The Road to Endeavour for updates on the rover’s progress.

More Evidence of Liquid Erosion on Mars?

 

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Terby Crater, a 170-km-wide (100-mile-wide) crater located on the northern edge of the vast Hellas Planitia basin in Mars’ southern hemisphere, is edged by variable-toned layers of sedimentary rock – possibly laid down over millennia of submersion beneath standing water. This image (false-color) from the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows a portion of Terby’s northern wall with what clearly looks like liquid-formed gullies slicing through the rock layers, branching from the upper levels into a main channel that flows downward, depositing a fan of material at the wall’s base.

But, looks can be deceiving…

 

Terby Crater. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Dry processes – especially on Mars, where large regions have been bone-dry for many millions of years – can often create the same effects on the landscape as those caused by running water. Windblown Martian sand and repetitive dry landslides can etch rock in much the same way as liquid water, given enough time. But the feature seen above in Terby seem to planetary scientists to be most likely the result of liquid erosion… especially considering that the sedimentary layers themselves seem to contain clay materials, which only form in the presence of liquid water. Is it possible that some water existed beneath Mars’ surface long after the planet’s surface dried out? Or that it’s still there? Only future exploration will tell for sure.

“While formation by liquid water is one of the proposed mechanisms for gully formation on Mars, there are others, such as gravity-driven mass-wasting (like a landslide) that don’t require the presence of liquid water. This is still an open question that scientists are actively pursuing.”

– Nicole Baugh, HiRISE Targeting Specialist

Terby Crater was once on the short list of potential landing sites for the new Mars Science Laboratory (aka Curiosity) rover but has since been removed from consideration. Still, it may one day be visited by a future robotic mission and have its gullies further explored from ground level.

Click here to see the original image on the HiRISE site.

Image credit: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona