Geologic evidence for changes in paleoclimate on Mars

Dichotomies in the fluvial and alluvial fan deposits of the Aeolis Dorsa, Mars: Implications for weathered sediment and paleoclimate
by Robert E. Jacobsen and Devon M. Burr
Summarized by Time Scavengers contributor, Rose Borden

What data were used? In this study, the scientists used images and topographic data from satellites orbiting Mars. This data was collected using two instruments:

CTX (Context Camera) images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter were used to map the locations and types of fluvial and alluvial (formed by flowing water) geologic features in the study area. Images from this camera can resolve features about the size of a room (5-6 m or 15-20 ft).

MOLA (Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter) topographic data from the Mars Global Surveyor was used to find elevations of the different features that were mapped and infer their relative ages. For example, if one feature is on top of another, the higher one is inferred to be younger.

Methods: The authors made a geologic map of the Aeolis Dorsa region using images from thes two datasets described above. The Aeolis Dorsa region is a rectangular area roughly 500 x 500 km. There are many types of sinuous (snake-like) ridges in this area that were formed by wind depositing or eroding the sand and rocks, by flowing water, or by tectonics. Some of these sinuous ridges are interpreted by geologists as inverted fluvial and alluvial deposits. Fluvial refers to transport by rivers or streams and alluvial refers to transport by intermittent water, such as on a floodplain. These types of features are formed by water carving out a river channel and depositing rocks and sediments within that channel. When the water dries up, these rocks and sediments become hardened by a process called chemical cementation, which means the rocks and sediments are “glued” together chemically by minerals dissolved in the water. Later, the rocks around these indurated sediments are eroded and what was a channel now appears as a ridge. This enables geologists to use the inverted channels to map out ancient river deposits.

Map of the Aeolis Dorsa region with colors showing different topographic elevations. The red and brown are higher elevations and blue and green are lower. The brightly colored lines represent the different types of fluvial and alluvial features that were mapped, and the black boxes are smaller areas studied in detail.

Results: The locations and relative ages (which deposits are older than each other) of the inverted channels found in the Aeolis Dorsa region show two things. First, the deposits in the southern part of the region required more water and mud to form, implying that there was more rain and more cohesive (“sticky”) soil good for making mud in the south than in the north. Second, the amount of precipitation evolved over time. The older deposits were mainly fluvial and required more water/precipitation than the younger deposits which were mainly alluvial.

Why is this study important? This study is important because it shows how the climate varied over time and within different areas of the same local region on Mars. The study also used terrestrial analogs, which are places with similar features on Earth. This is important because we can’t yet go to places on Mars and directly sample the rocks, so scientists use these terrestrial analogs that they can directly sample to compare what they see in the geology of Mars.

The big picture: Understanding the local variations in paleoclimates on Mars is important to scientists because studying the past climate of Mars can tell us about past “habitability” – the availability of water and other resources for life. Studies like these can also help scientists find good places to land and explore further on future missions to Mars.

Citation: Jacobsen, R. E., and Burr, D. M., 2017, Dichotomies in the fluvial and alluvial fan deposits of the Aeolis Dorsa, Mars: Implications for weathered sediment and paleoclimate: Geosphere, v. 13, no. 6, doi:10.1130/GES01330.1

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