In search for water on Mars, clues from Antarctica

December 10, 2007
In search for water on Mars, clues from Antarctica
Site in Pearse Valley of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica. Saltwater seeped to the surface and evaporated, leaving behind a salty crust. Photo courtesy of Ohio State University.

Scientists have gathered more evidence that suggests flowing water on Mars -- by comparing images of the red planet to an otherworldly landscape on Earth.

In recent years, scientists have examined images of several sites on Mars where water appears to have flowed to the surface and left behind a trail of sediment. Those sites closely resemble places where water flows today in the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica , the new study has found.

The new study bolsters the notion that liquid water could be flowing beneath the surface of Mars. And since bacteria thrive in the liquid water flowing in the Dry Valleys, the find suggests that bacterial life could possibly exist on Mars as well.

Researchers have used the Dry Valleys as an analogy for Mars for 30 years, explained Berry Lyons, professor of earth sciences and director of the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University.

Lyons is lead principal investigator for the National Science Foundation's Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network, a collaboration of more than 1,800 scientists who study the ecology of sites around the world.

One of the LTER sites is in the Dry Valleys, a polar desert in Antarctica with year-round saltwater flowing beneath the surface. With temperatures that dip as low as negative 85 degrees Fahrenheit, it's as cold as the Martian equator, and its iron-rich soil gives it a similar red color.

“If you looked at pictures of both landscapes side by side, you couldn't tell them apart,” Lyons said.

In the new study, LTER scientists did just that -- they compared images of water flows in the Dry Valleys to images of gullies on Mars that show possible evidence of recent water flow.

Team member Peter Doran of the University of Illinois at Chicago presented the results Tuesday, December 11, 2007, at the American Geophysical Union meeting at San Francisco .

The scientists' conclusion: the Martian sites closely resemble sites in the Dry Valleys where water has seeped to the surface.

The water in the Dry Valleys can be very salty -- it's full of potassium chloride, the same kind of salt we sprinkle on roadways to melt ice. That's why the water doesn't freeze. Natural springs form from melted ground ice or buried glacier ice, and the saltwater percolates to the surface.

“Even in the dead of winter, there are locations with salty water in the Dry Valleys ,” Lyons said. “Two months a year, we even have lakes of liquid water covered in ice.”

But after the water reaches the surface, it evaporates, leaving behind salt and sediment.

The same thing would happen on Mars, he added.

Because the suspected sediment sites on Mars closely resemble known sediment sites in the Dry Valleys, Lyons and his colleagues think that liquid saltwater is likely flowing beneath the Martian surface.

Lyons, who has led many expeditions to Antarctica, said that his team will continue to compare what they learn on Earth to any new evidence of water uncovered on Mars.

As they walk across the Dry Valleys, they can't help but compare the two.

“There's just something about that landscape, about being so far from civilization, that makes you think about other worlds,” he said.

Source: Ohio State University, by Pam Frost Gorder

Explore further: Major California river adding key ingredient: water

Related Stories

Major California river adding key ingredient: water

October 22, 2016

A decade ago, environmentalists and the federal government agreed to revive a 150-mile stretch of California's second-longest river, an ambitious effort aimed at allowing salmon again to swim up to the Sierra Nevada foothills ...

Receding glaciers in Bolivia leave communities at risk

October 20, 2016

A new study published in The Cryosphere, an European Geosciences Union journal, has found that Bolivian glaciers shrunk by 43% between 1986 and 2014, and will continue to diminish if temperatures in the region continue to ...

California water board fears water-saving has been abandoned

October 5, 2016

New figures Wednesday show Californians' summer water use up by more than a third since the same time last year, making water regulators worry some areas have abandoned drought-time water savings since the state lifted mandatory ...

Madagascar hillsides stripped bare as locals seek land

October 9, 2016

"Last time, I burnt a section about that big," says Mihareta Laivoa, pointing to a parcel of land about the size of a football field, as the farmer admitted to having destroyed forest to make way for his crops.

Recommended for you

Gaia spies two temporarily magnified stars

October 28, 2016

While scanning the sky to measure the position of over one billion stars in our Galaxy, ESA's Gaia satellite has detected two rare instances of stars whose light was temporarily boosted by other celestial objects passing ...

More than 15,000 near-Earth objects and counting

October 28, 2016

The international effort to find, confirm and catalogue the multitude of asteroids that pose a threat to our planet has reached a milestone: 15 000 discovered – with many more to go.

How planets like Jupiter form

October 28, 2016

Young giant planets are born from gas and dust. Researchers of ETH Zürich and the Universities of Zürich and Bern simulated different scenarios relying on the computing power of the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.