Study estimates amount of water needed to carve Martian valleys

June 5, 2017, Northern Illinois University
Depiction of Mars today and what a warm and wet ancient Mars might have looked like. Credit: Wei Luo, Northern Illinois University

A new study led by Northern Illinois University geography professor Wei Luo calculates the amount of water needed to carve the ancient network of valleys on Mars and concludes the Red Planet's surface was once much more watery than previously thought.

The study bolsters the idea that Mars once had a warmer climate and active hydrologic cycle, with water evaporating from an ancient ocean, returning to the surface as rainfall and eroding the planet's extensive network of valleys.

Satellites orbiting Mars and rovers on its surface have provided scientists with convincing evidence that water helped shape the planet's landscape billions of years ago. But questions have lingered over how much water actually flowed on the planet, and the ocean hypothesis has been hotly debated.

In the new study, published June 5, in the online journal Nature Communications, Luo and colleagues used an innovative algorithm to more precisely calculate the volume of cavity space within Mars valleys and the amount of water that would have been needed to create those cavities through erosion over time. The majority of the networks are more than 3 billion years old.

"Our most conservative estimates of the global volume of the Martian valley networks and the cumulative amount of water needed to carve those valleys are at least 10 times greater than most previous estimates," Luo said.

Wei Luo. Credit: Northern Illinois University

Additionally, the new estimate of the amount of water needed to sculpt the valleys is at least one order of magnitude larger than the volume of a hypothesized ocean and 4,000 times the volume of the valley cavities, Luo said.

"That means water must have recycled through the valley systems on Mars many times, and a large open body of water or ocean is needed to facilitate such active cycling," Luo said. "I would imagine early Mars as being similar to what we have on Earth—with an ocean, lakes, running rivers and rainfall."

But a large piece of the puzzle is missing, he added, because climate models have not been able to reproduce an early Mars climate sufficiently warm enough to promote an active hydrologic cycle.

"Mars is much farther way from the sun than Earth, and when the sun was younger, it was not as bright as it is today," Luo said. "So there's still a lot to work out in trying to reconcile the evidence for more ."

Wei Luo. Credit: Northern Illinois University

NASA's Mars Data Analysis Program provided funding to conduct the investigation. Professor Alan Howard of the University of Virginia and NIU Ph.D. student Xuezhi Cang collaborated on the research and co-authored the Nature Communications article.

To determine the volume of Mars' globally, the scientists developed computer algorithms, based on those used in terrestrial laser-generated data analyses with very high resolution. They applied the algorithms to the digital elevation model data, estimating the depth of all the Mars' valleys at pixel level.

"The increase in the estimated volume of valley erosion in this study primarily results from taking into account the incision of the many small tributaries draining into the main valleys," co-author Howard said.

Explore further: Martian valleys could have been carved by surprisingly little water

More information: Nature Communications (2017). DOI: 10.1038/NCOMMS15766

Related Stories

Some ancient Mars lakes came long after others

September 15, 2016

Lakes and snowmelt-fed streams on Mars formed much later than previously thought possible, according to new findings using data primarily from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Image: Mawrth Vallis Martian mosaic

September 27, 2016

Sculpted by ancient water flowing on the surface, Mawrth Vallis is one of the most remarkable outflow channels on Mars. The valley, once a potentially habitable place, is one of the main features of a region at the boundary ...

Recommended for you

Is dark matter made of primordial black holes?

April 20, 2018

Astronomers studying the motions of galaxies and the character of the cosmic microwave background radiation came to realize in the last century that most of the matter in the universe was not visible. About 84 percent of ...

NASA engineers dream big with small spacecraft

April 20, 2018

Many of NASA's most iconic spacecraft towered over the engineers who built them: think Voyagers 1 and 2, Cassini or Galileo—all large machines that could measure up to a school bus.

Unveiling the secrets of the Milky Way galaxy

April 20, 2018

A multinational team of astronomers involving the University of Adelaide has catalogued over 70 sources of very high energy gamma rays, including 16 previously undiscovered ones, in a survey of the Milky Way using gamma ray ...

Where is the universe's missing matter?

April 19, 2018

Astronomers using ESA's XMM-Newton space observatory have probed the gas-filled haloes around galaxies in a quest to find 'missing' matter thought to reside there, but have come up empty-handed – so where is it?

10 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Gigel
5 / 5 (1) Jun 05, 2017
Maybe young Mars also had a magnetic field and a thick atmosphere that was much better at retaining heat. Maybe there are signs of early magnetism into the rocks there and of tectonic plates (which may point to the early existence of water).
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Jun 05, 2017
Maybe you should Google your notions to find out if they are novel or not?

"It is thought that the localized fields detected on Mars are remnants of a magnetosphere that collapsed early in its history. "
katesisco
2.3 / 5 (6) Jun 05, 2017
Plasma arcing in Mars early history has been proposed as a creator of the Valles Marianas and there has been hints at the production of water from plasma arcing. Here theorists have proposed that mountains have been created by deposition from above. Again from plasma arcing.
Shootist
5 / 5 (2) Jun 05, 2017
Maybe you should Google your notions to find out if they are novel or not?

"It is thought that the localized fields detected on Mars are remnants of a magnetosphere that collapsed early in its history. "


About the time of the Hellas and Utopia impacts.
Guy_Underbridge
4.3 / 5 (6) Jun 05, 2017
Again from plasma arcing
Or Galactic Unicorn farts.. don't forget those.
cantdrive85
2.6 / 5 (5) Jun 05, 2017
"Our most conservative estimates of the global volume of the Martian valley networks and the cumulative amount of water needed to carve those valleys are at least 10 times greater than most previous estimates,"

That's no drop in the ocean...
Additionally, the new estimate of the amount of water needed to sculpt the valleys is at least one order of magnitude larger than the volume of a hypothesized ocean and 4,000 times the volume of the valley cavities

Uff-da, that's quite a bit. Doesn't stop the acolytes such as jonesdumb from calling it a done deal though.
climate models have not been able to reproduce an early Mars climate sufficiently warm enough to promote an active hydrologic cycle.
"So there's still a lot to work out in trying to reconcile the evidence for more water."

No problem there, just blame it on something "dark". The young Sun was "dark" hot.

Gigel
5 / 5 (1) Jun 05, 2017
Maybe you should Google your notions to find out if they are novel or not?

Yep. That's a good suggestion.
Jonseer
5 / 5 (2) Jun 06, 2017
Again from plasma arcing
Or Galactic Unicorn farts.. don't forget those.


You mock the electro-universe theory, yet surely you know that Unicorn farts are one of the most destructive forces of nature on other planets. Able to level mountains and even crack the crust down to the mantle on smaller orbs, they most definitely could be responsible. Well at least lend a hand to the diabolical, plasma arcs which seemed to have ceased to exist in any way shape or form that is detectable by modern science. No doubt they share with the unicorn the trait of disappearing completely while they do their work and leaving only the results behind to confound the traditional theorists and inspire the faithful.
wkingmilw
1 / 5 (1) Jun 06, 2017
I think the canyons on Mars were caused by an electro-static discharge during a near miss. The interaction between the electromagnetic fields of two closely passing planes would function like a pair of Tesla coils.
Gigel
not rated yet Jun 07, 2017
I think the canyons on Mars were caused by an electro-static discharge during a near miss.

Well then, where's the "near miss" in it?

Anyway, one should establish clear consequences of an electrostatic discharge having that sort of effect as compared to some tectonic or hydrological events, so that one can clearly deduce from measurements which kind of event really took place and which one did not. Otherwise it looks like speculation.

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.