19 July 2010
New Evidence for an Ocean on Mars?
Posted by Ryan Anderson
There’s a new Nature Geoscience paper that has made a big splash in the Mars community, reviving interest in the possibility of a northern ocean. This news was making the rounds a couple weeks ago, but I decided to hold off because at last week’s Mars Journal Club we discussed the paper.
The idea behind the paper is deceptively simple. The authors, Gaetano DiAchille and Brian Hynek, searched all over Mars for landforms that looked like deltas: fan-shaped features that form when flowing water encounters standing water and drops its load of sediment. By finding the elevation of the deltas, they could see if they all formed in the same big body of water.
Many of the delta-like features on Mars lead into closed basins, such as craters. These basins might have formed isolated lakes, and so their deltas were not counted when trying to infer the shoreline of the ancient ocean. On the other hand, DiAchille and Hynek found 17 deltas the did not empty into closed basins. These ones instead formed at the edge of the northern lowlands. Amazingly, when the authors measured their elevation, these 17 deltas -which were spread all around the planet – turned out to have the same elevation to within a few hundred meters! This suggests quite strongly that they all formed when flowing water encountered a large northern ocean. The inferred shoreline of the ocean matches pretty well with some stretches of the highland-lowland boundary that had previously been suggested as possible shorelines. The possible shore also is consistent with where the fluvial channels on Mars are observed. On a map of channels in ancient martian terrain, only 1% of the channels are at elevations below the elevation of the shoreline!
It’s also worth noting that some of the deltas that are in closed bases fall within the error bars on the possible shoreline. That might suggest that there was a global groundwater system, so that lakes near the ocean had the same water level.
There’s no doubt about it, this is a cool paper. I did have some questions about their methods. In particular, how do they know the “deltas” are actually deltas and not alluvial fans? Especially if these features formed three billion years ago, erosion could have significantly changed their shapes. It would be pretty easy to erode the edges of an alluvial fan to make something that looks more like a delta. Considering that the very best example of a delta on Mars – the Ebeswalde Delta – has been the subject of intense scrutiny and debate about whether it actually is a delta, I was surprised to see how nonchalantly the authors claimed that the fan-shaped features were deltas.
Still, this paper goes a long way toward resurrecting the idea of a northern ocean on Mars. It will be interesting to see how the community reacts to this in the coming years. An ocean on Mars would be a huge discovery, but as the saying goes: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The extremely narrow error bars on the delta elevations are pretty extraordinary, but I’m sure many people will remain unconvinced.
Di Achille, G., & Hynek, B. (2010). Ancient ocean on Mars supported by global distribution of deltas and valleys Nature Geoscience, 3 (7), 459-463 DOI: 10.1038/ngeo891
Has there been any publication concerning the different shapes between craters in the northern basin & craters all over the rest of Mars? The northern craters has a bulge like shape as if they hit in mud. I know it isn’t mud they hit in but what kind of sub surface material or structure would cause that shape. Could it be ice?
Yes, there has been tons of research into lobate ejecta (also known as fluidized ejecta, rampart craters, pedestal craters, among other things). Ground ice is the leading theory, but it’s also possible that interaction between the ejecta and an earlier, thicker atmosphere.
not only could the distributive features be alluvial fans as you mention, but it’s not impossible that they could be submarine fans … in other words, distributary sedimentary systems can form above, at, and below sea level
but, I agree, it’s a simple and elegant idea and definitely worthy of a paper
Ah – when this came out a few weeks ago I was hoping you’d write about it.
I have a vague recollection there was a paper a year or two back that if you adjust for how the shape of Mars has changed (Tharsis bulge, I think, or maybe it was polar wander?), the ‘shorelines’ come out much more level than they are at present. Presumably both this and the new hypothesis can’t be true? (Sorry I can’t be more specificabout the earlier paper.)
[…] New Evidence for an Ocean on Mars? A recent paper suggests that evidence for former oceans on Mars has been right there in front of us all the time! Ryan at The Martian Chronicles describes the details. […]
The link below leads to an analysis of putative Martian shorelines (Clifford and Parker, 2001) showing that the lines are most likely produced by pooled water or ice:
The analysis uses an accurate three-dimensional model of Mars
(using MOLA data) to analyze the shorelines reported by Clifford and
Parker (2001) and shows that the lines are, in fact, equipotentials – like a bathtub ring – delineating the shorelines of former oceans.
The analysis, which preceded Di Achille’s paper, goes a step further by superimposing a tidally distorted ocean on the Martian topography to match the purported shorelines. Di Achille’s results are complemented by the results.