Press Release

Water Shaped Martian Landscape In Recent Times, Hydrologist Says

By SpaceRef Editor
July 19, 2001
Filed under , ,

From Lori Stiles, University of Arizona News Services, 520-621-1877

Scientists have known for decades that Mars, at least in its ancient past,
has had a considerable amount of water.

But when Mars Global Surveyor began mapping the Red Planet in sharp detail
early in 1999, it disclosed startling evidence that water has shaped martian
landforms within the past 10 million years.

The discovery challenges the prevailing view that Mars’ surface has remained
extremely cold and dry – much as it is today – for the past 3.9 billion

It confirms the idea that internal heat periodically triggers short-term
warmer and wetter conditions – conditions conducive to life – in the global
martian hydrological cycle, University of Arizona Regents’ Professor Victor
R. Baker says in a review article, “Water and the martian landscape,”
published by Nature July 12. Baker is head of the UA department of hydrology
and water resources.

Mars is cold, dry and quiet for long periods of the hydrological cycle,
periods spanning hundreds of millions of years, Baker says. It becomes
actively warmer and wetter during brief episodes that last perhaps thousands
to tens of thousands of years.

He summarizes evidence of permafrost and ground ice, surface water and
glacial ice seen first in early 1970s images from Mariner 9 flybys and in
later 1970s images from the Viking missions. New results from Mars Orbital
Camera (MOC) and Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) are not only consistent
with the view that water shaped the geology of Mars – they say it happened
very recently.

New spacecraft images have revealed:

  • Megafloods that have possibly triggered climate change within the past
    10 million years

  • Extensive, uncratered (young) areas of the northern plains and southern
    highlands covered by contraction-cracked, polygonal terrain that closely
    mimics terrestrial permafrost areas

  • Lakes that held water for a thousand to ten thousand years, when
    climate must have been drastically different than it is now.

  • Gullies that have drained water and debris on Mars’ surface within the
    past several million years

  • A whole assembly of features that is evidence for very recent glaciers
    — crevasse-like fractures, moraines drained by converging tributaries,
    debris aprons deposited within the past several million years.

To speculate a bit , Baker said in an interview, the latest water-active
episode is so recent that it may not yet be over. Current cold, dry Mars may
be just a phase within one of the rare, brief warm and wet periods.

“We don’t know the answer to that yet – that’s very speculative, ” Baker
said. “But if it’s true, it would have major implications for sending people
to Mars, because it may mean that water is more available than otherwise

UA planetary scientist William V. Boynton’s Gamma Ray Spectrometer (GRS)
heading to Mars on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft will begin its 917 Earth-day
mapping mission in December 2001 or January 2002. The GRS will map the
amounts of all the elements over the entire surface of Mars. Hydrogen would
signal the presence of water or ice buried as deep as a meter in Mars’ dust.

Other high-resolution spectrometers, cameras and robotic devices now in the
planning stages also will search for martian water, Baker said. When
scientists have learned as much as possible from these remote sensing
instruments, one idea is to send a number of small, simple and inexpensive
surface penetrators to be dropped at several places on the planet to test
for the presence of water.

For now, however, new images from the Mars Orbital Camera and Mars Orbital
Laser Altimeter further confirm that “brief episodes of water-related
activity, including glaciation, punctuate the geological history of Mars,”
Baker wrote in Nature.

Evidence for recent martian glaciers is among the most important and
controversial, he said.

“If there are glaciers, then Mars is very different than many people have
described it,” he said. “Glaciers aren’t ice cubes, sitting there to waste
away. In order to have glaciers, you have to have precipitation. Water has
to move through the atmosphere, and it precipitates and makes the ice grow.”

And glaciers don’t form in the coldest environments, he added. Glaciers form
where there is cold and moisture. “But for there to be moisture, it can’t be
supercold,” he noted. “The atmosphere has to be warm enough to evaporate
water and move it through the air. The presence of glaciers means that Mars
once was a lot warmer, and that there was much more water on the martian
surface. The presence of glaciers suggests that there must have been
standing bodies of water as well. “

How could it happen?

Confronted by Viking images of young fluvial and glacial features on Mars –
stream valleys that apparently were formed by precipitation and glacial
features over large areas of the planet, Baker, Robert G. Strom and other UA
scientists in 1991 theorized what has become known as the “MEGAOUTFLO”

Basically, the hypothesis says that over the long term, water and volatiles
remain frozen as ground ice and ground water in the subsurface because Mars
is so distant from the sun and extremely cold. The perennially frozen
permafrost acts like a cap on a soda bottle. And just as gas and water in a
capped soda bottle explode when heated, sporadic bursts of internal
planetary heat trigger the dramatic release of gas and water locked under
the permafrost.

They theorize that so much water is released in such episodes that a
temporary ocean forms repeatedly over the northern hemisphere. Massive
martian volcanism near the northern hemisphere’s Thasis Bulge has – and may
again – trigger an ocean.

Carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere promotes the warming greenhouse
effect so that liquid water is stable near the martian surface. Mars lacks a
soil layer like Earth’s, so when it rains, water filters underground rather
than collecting on the surface. Local valleys and other observed martian
features form when near-surface water gushes up from below. But when it
rains, water removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and Mars chills to
the point that permafrost reforms, plunging the planet into another dry,
frigid long-lasting epoch.

The extensive hydrosphere implied by Mars’ water-generated geology “may
exist only as ground ice in the thick permafrost zone and as underlying
groundwater,” Baker wrote in Nature. “Yet, this is the type of environment
in which the extremophile progenitors of Earth’s biosphere probably evolved.
Indeed, early Mars provided an arguably better habitat for the inception and
incubation of early life than did early Earth.”

And if that’s the case, he added, there could be fossils.

Contact Information

Victor R. Baker


Related link

  • 12 July 2001: Nature Insight on Mars Special: Water and the martian landscape, Nature (subscription required for access)

  • SpaceRef staff editor.