Cycling on Mars

High-resolution remotely sensed data (HiRISE) from the Red Planet is free of charge to registered investigators (it did cost quite a bit to acquire), whereas the Earthly equivalent costing would set you back at least US$25 per square kilometre (for Quickbird. They are wonderfully clear, as Mars’s thin atmosphere causes no haze except during dust storms. They are also in stereo, providing both 3-D views and digital terrain elevation data with a precision of 1 m. HiRISE data have revealed detail equivalent to that from aerial photos of Earth taken from about 5 km above. Not surprisingly, they show a lot of geology, including an area around 500 to 1000 km2 with clear signs of layered sediments (Lewis, K.W. et al. 2008. Quasi-periodic bedding in the sedimentary rock record of Mars. Science, v. 322, p. 1532-1535). Where large craters have exposed sequences in their walls it is possible to measure bedding thickness and count individual strata. In Becquerel crater the layering is very regular, comprising two size ranges around 3.6 and 37 m, the second being made up of several of the first sized layers. The two sets of thickness remain consistent through about 300 m of section, so probably represent cyclical processes on Mars. The most likely driving forces are rotational and orbital, as they are for the Earth’s Milankovich climatic pacing. The 10:1 ratio between the two frequencies of bedding is twice that dominating the Milankovich time series (rotational precession and orbital eccentricity). One possibility for the Martian  cycles is the estimated variation of orbital eccentricity on 120 ka, 1.2 Ma and 2.4 Ma timescales, although axial tilt changes through tens of degrees; far more than does that of the Earth’s rotational axis. Thankfully, the authors stick to variations in wind-driven sedimentation to explain the bedding cycles. Changes in insolation on Mars would affect condensation and evaporation of CO2 ice at the poles, and consequently the density of the atmosphere and its ability to move and deposit sediment. Less fortunately, they suggest water must have been involved to lithify the layers. That hardly seems necessary on a planet with low atmospheric pressure, as unconsolidated wind-blown loess in western China maintains the integrity of its layering with little cementation.

Snowball Earth challenged again

Nobody doubts that in the Neoproterozoic there were several massive climate changes that brought frigid conditions to low latitudes. Some demand that the Earth then entered a runaway cooling because the increased albedo cause by continental ice cover would have reflected away a large amount of solar radiation; the Snowball Earth hypothesis is that the entire planet then became icebound. Evidence for the global glacial epochs is in the form of sediments clearly influenced by deposition of debris carried by ice. Later glacial episodes of Late Ordovician and Carboniferous-Permian age left thin tillites – lithified boulder clay – on glaciated land surfaces in northern and southern Africa and other parts of the southern continents, but the main evidence for the much deeper chills of late Precambrian age are thick piles of sediment studded with dropstones from floating ice. These are glaciomarine diamictites as opposed to tillites. Philip Allen and James Etienne of Imperial College, London and Neftex Petroleum Consultants of Abingdon, UK have paid particular attention to the Neoproterozoic diamictites of Oman (Allen, P.A. & Etienne, J.L 2008. Sedimentary challenge to Snowball Earth. Nature Geoscience, v. 1, p. 817-825). These prime candidates for typical products of low-latitude frigidity are over 1 km thick, and therefore require massive supply of precipitation to drive the large ice flows that could transport such large amounts of sediment. Moreover, within the sequence are many sediments that show little sign of glacial influence yet abundant signs of water transport, such as deltaic bedforms. Other strata are marine and contain ripples formed by wave action; a process that would be impossible with total ice cover. Cyclicity is present, as it is in other Neoproterozoic diamictites. That suggests repeated climate change. Snowball Earth aficionados, and others besides, claim just two and possibly three cryogenic episodes in the Neoproterozoic, but Allen and Young point to the wide range of maximum and minimum ages for those diamictites that are amenable to absolute dating. They suggest that, apart from glaciers being able to develop on land at lower latitudes than in subsequent glacial epochs, the late Precambrian was not ‘special, being merely a period of prolonged climate instability akin to those of later times paced by astronomical factors.

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