A mighty sag or a big wrench for Mars

MOLA colorized relief map of the western hemis...

Colour-coded relief map of the Thatsis bulge on Mars, with Valles Marineris at left centre (Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, via Wikipedia)

In the Solar System topographic features don’t come larger than Valles Marineris on Mars. At between 5 to 10 kilometres deep and extending along a fifth of the planet’s circumference, it makes the Grand Canyon and The Gorge of the Nile look puny.

The base and margins of this stupendous valley contains all manner of evidence for erosion, huge landslips and signs of collapse into voids in Mars’s crust. Much of the erosion on Mars seems to have stemmed from catastrophic floods several billion years ago, though whether they were all of water or if some were volcanic in origin is being debated (Leverington, D.W. 2011. A volcanic origin for the outflow channels of Mars: Key evidence and major implications. Geomorphology, v. 132, p. 51-75 http://www.webpages.ttu.edu/dleverin/leverington_mars_outflow_channels_geomorphology_2011.pdf  , but see http://www.universetoday.com/94367/did-water-or-lava-carve-the-outflow-channels-on-mars/)

It is difficult to imagine anything other than some kind of fault control over the almost straight, roughly east-west trend of Vales Marineris, but the scale suggests, again, an unmatched scale of tectonics. It has long been thought that the massive canyon resulted from extensional rifting that created a major weakness etched out by later erosion and/or collapse into huge subsurface voids in the crust. Yet there is little sign of commensurately large faults, through there are some. But the structure is an integral part of yet another superlative. It is on the eastern flank of the mighty Tharsis bulge on which several humongous volcanoes, including Mons Olympus, developed: perhaps there is a causal link between the two dominating features.

Jeffrey Andrews-Hanna of the Colorado School of Mines in the US has tried to model the bulge-chasm pair, coming to the conclusion that there is little sign of major extension. The finale of his study zeroes-in on the possibility of dominant subsidence producing the structure (Andrews-Hanna, J.C. 2012. The formation of Valles Marineris:  3. Trough formation through super-isostasy, stress, sedimentation, and subsidence.  Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 117, E06002, doi:10.1029/2012JE004059).

In this model, the Tharsis bulge and its associated volcanic province rose so high that on the scale of the planet it must have created a large positive gravitational anomaly. This remains for the most part, but in the Valles Marineris region the crust is now either in isostatic balance or has large negative gravity anomalies, complicated by the fact that the very carving of the canyon system must have resulted in some uplift through unloading. For a while the whole bulge was supported in this gravitationally unstable state by the strength of the Martian lithosphere, and most of it is still in a state of disequilibrium.

Andrews-Hanna’s novel view is that a small amount of extension allowed residual magma to rise in linear zone along the eventual length of Valles Marineris as dykes. The magmas and their heating effect reduced the strength of the lithosphere, locally removing support for the huge load, which subsided. By creating greater slope on the surface of Tharsis the subsidence would have become a focus for both erosion and sedimentation, the increased sedimentary load adding to the subsidence to give the present stupendous depth of the canyons and chasms.

Polski: NASA World Wind - Mars (MOLA Shaded el...

Simulated oblique view of the topography of Valles Marineris looking westwards (Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, via Wikipedia)

But this isn’t the only model for the canyon system (Yin, A. Structural analysis of the Valles Marineris fault zone: Possible evidence for large-scale strike-slip faulting on Mars. Lithosphere, v. 4 doi:10.1130/L192.1). An Yin of the University of California used a combination of remote sensing data from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey to perform detailed lithological and structural mapping  along Valles Marineris. What emerged were several  fault zones up to 2000 km long. Instead of an expected extensional sense of movement they are strike-slip faults, with displacements of the order of 100 km in a left-lateral sense. Yin’s model is that the canyon system bean as a zone of transtensional  deformation: very different from that of Andrews-Hanna. It also begs the question of the underlying tectonic processes, because strike-slip zone on Earth are usually associated with distributed stress from plate tectonics.

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