Ice cliffs on Mars

An illustration of what Mars might have looked...

An illustration of what Mars might have looked like during an ice age between 2.1 million and 400,000 years ago, when Mars’s axial tilt is believed to have been much larger than today.  (credit: Wikipedia)

For Mars to support life and for life to have emerged there demand water that is readily accessible from the surface. There is evidence that in the distant past liquid water may have flowed across the Martian surface to erode river-like features, some associated with the vast canyon system of Valles Marineris. That feature is thought to have been initiated by tectonic forces and perhaps flowing magma, but it shows definite signs of water erosion. Water in great volume was released during the Noachian phase of Mars’s evolution possibly by major impacts 4100 to 3700 million years ago, during the interval known as the Late Heavy Bombardment). Large tracts of the Martian surface that are more muted than Valles Marineris show topographic features reminiscent of huge braided stream systems. Water may have covered vast, low-lying areas in the planet’s Northern Hemisphere to form an early ocean. Yet today the Red Planet seems extremely dry and its thin atmosphere shows only minute traces of water vapour – it is dominated by carbon dioxide. Results from various rovers deployed across its surface and from Mars orbiting satellites have, however, revealed signs of waterlain sediments and minerals that can only have formed by the breakdown of igneous rocks by water. Signs that liquid water continues to flow occasionally down steep slopes, such as rill-like features and ephemeral darkened patches, have been much disputed.

Mars does have an ice cap at its North Pole that waxes and wanes with its seasons, but rather than melting during Martian ‘summers’ the ice sublimates directly to water vapour. Conversely, the polar ices probably form from frost. Yet, astonishingly, there appear to be active glaciers complete with flow lines and moraines, but chances are that some of them are sediment flows ‘lubricated’ by frost binding together mineral particles and boulders that undergoes pressure-induced regelation. Data from orbiting neutron and gamma-ray spectrometers reveal that between 60°N and 60°S the top metre of Martian soil contains between 2 to 18% of ice, making it akin to terrestrial permafrost. So, contrary to its appearance Mars is rich in water, but almost exclusively in solid form. Until very recently, the bulk was thought to be as a matrix binding together sediments, accessible to future crewed mission in useful volumes only by surface mining. That somewhat pessimistic view has now changed dramatically.

Monochrome HiRISE image of a cliff on Mars (the pinkish swath is a simulated natural colour image – see below). beneath the cliff is a zone of jumbled ground formed by cliff collapses. (credit: NASA)

Careful study of fine resolution imagery from the HiRISE instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at latitudes a little less than 60° has centred on cliffs formed by recent erosion (Dundas, C.M and 11 others 2018. Exposed subsurface ice sheets in the Martian mid-latitudes. Science, v. 359, p. 199-201; doi: 10.1126/science.aao1619). Colin Dundas of the US Geological Survey, Flagstaff, Arizona, and US colleagues used the multispectral capacities of HiRISE data to study the composition of sedimentary layers exposed in the cliffs. In eight cases, the cliffs contained layered, almost pure blue ice tens of metres thick and only a few metres below the surface. The cliffs seem to have formed as ice has sublimated where exposed, thereby undermining to sedimentary cover. Below the cliffs are jumbled zones of collapsed material. Being so close to the surface and underlain by apparently ice-free sediments, the layered ice sheets must be geologically quite young.

Simulated natural-colour HiRISE image of a Martian cliff showing nearly pure water ice in blues. Note the layered structure that may represent seasonal variations during the period of ice formation (credit: NASA)

Unlike the Earth, whose axial tilt is stabilised to a large degree by the Moon’s gravity, Mars’s two tiny moons have little effect of this kind. So Mars’s axis wobbles between its current 25° tilt to as much as 45°. This results in large climatic shifts, of which there have been an estimated forty over the last 5 million years. At high tilts solar energy heats up the poles and releases water vapour by accelerated sublimation to be laid down at lower latitudes as frost or snow. Mars’s present tilt suggests that it is experiencing a cold episode so that wind blown dust has covered and preserved mid-latitude ice sheets over tens of thousand years. Nearly pure ice is easier to exploit than permafrost layers. Yet optimism among enthusiasts for a crewed Mars mission and eventual colonisation is tempered by the latitudes of the discoveries. While ready supplies of water from ice and CO2 from the Martian atmosphere give the ingredients for oxygen, methane through catalysis of CO2 and hydrogen, agricultural photosynthesis and all kinds of other useful chemistry, low latitudes offer the most assured solar energy supplies. Latitudes around 55° are frigid and dark during Martian winters; perhaps totally inhospitable. So the remote-sensing search is likely to continue in cliffs closer to the ‘tropics’ of Mars.


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