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Dusty Glaciers Could Explain Valles Marineris Deposits on Mars
Valles Marineris canyon

This image shows a portion of the Valles Marineris canyon system which is a 3,000-kilometer-long feature on Mars as seen in this combination of image data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter and Thermal Emission Spectrometer instrument aboard the Mars Global Surveyor. The colors in the image indicate topography and highlight vast mounds of layered sediments – some that reach more than a mile in height – that have been shown to contain sulfate minerals. In a recent paper published in Geology, PSI Research Scientist Joseph Michalski and co-author Paul Niles of NASA’s Johnson Space Center show these mounds may be remnants of vast, acidic glaciers that once filled parts of the Valles Marineris on Mars. Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center/ASU
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Researchers from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., have proposed a new hypothesis to explain a class of enigmatic geologic features on Mars that have puzzled scientists for decades. The new results suggest that large sedimentary deposits in the Valles Marineris, called Interior Layered Deposits (ILDs), may have formed in a cold, dry ancient Martian climate as the remnants of massive dust-rich glaciers that may have once filled this canyon system.

The new results were published online March 26 in the journal Geology in an article titled “An atmospheric origin of Martian Interior Layered Deposits (ILDs): Links to Climate Change and the global sulfur cycle,” written by co-authors Paul Niles, NASA space scientist in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate at JSC, and Joseph Michalski, research scientist at PSI.

“Icy weathering might be a major part of the geologic story on Mars,” said Michalski. “The planet has been in a cold, frozen state for a long time. In the distant past, it was also cold, but volcanoes were much more active, periodically pumping huge amounts of sulfur into the atmosphere, which could have ultimately ended up trapped within ice alongside plentiful dust.”

Valles Marineris is a 3,000-kilometer-long tectonic trough system on Mars, which reaches depths of approximately eight kilometers (five miles) below the surrounding terrain. Inside the canyon are vast mounds of layered sediments of enigmatic origins. Since their discovery by the Mariner 9 spacecraft about 40 years ago, the ILD deposits found within the Valles Marineris have escaped explanation. Their setting within the trough and canyon system has prompted some previous researchers to suggest that the ILDs formed from volcanic processes because the faulting and rifting that formed the canyon could easily lead to thinning of the crust, high heat flow and ascent of magma.

However, in the late 1990s, the Thermal Emission Spectrometer instrument showed that the deposits contain gray hematite, similar to deposits explored at Meridiani Planum by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. And shortly after, a French team of researchers produced intriguing new results that further complicated the interpretations of ILDs on Mars. They showed that the deposits contain sulfate minerals – which are typically found in desert playa or shallow sea environments on Earth and are not dominant phases in volcanic terrain.

One big part of the problem is the size of the altered, layered sediments that rise several kilometers from the canyon floor in places. Proposed ideas have included the suggestion that the canyon once housed a vast system of deep lakes. But the canyon is not topographically constrained on all sides, so it is difficult to imagine how a lake could have existed there without spilling into the low topography to the north.

A number of recent publications have suggested that the sulfate-bearing ILDs formed by groundwater upwelling, where subsurface water breaches the surface during occasional upwelling events. This process has been invoked to explain most of the sulfate-bearing deposits on Mars.

However, Michalski and Niles point out that this process cannot explain the origin of the ILDs because they occur in deposits spanning all elevations of the canyon, and seemingly have draping sedimentary relationships against the canyon walls. If groundwater formed the ILDs, it would require that essentially the entire canyon was at one time filled with sulfur rich sediments. And, that scenario is simply not possible because it would require more sulfur than would have ever been available on Mars.

As an alternative, Michalski and Niles suggest that the ILDs formed from massive, dusty ice deposits that once filled much of the canyon. Such a scenario is consistent with the size, topographic configuration of the deposits and with their mineralogy, which suggests weathering in an acidic, water-limited environment.

In an article in Nature Geoscience in 2009, Niles and coworkers proposed that these ice-dominated systems could also explain the origin of the deposits at Meridiani Planum.

“There is a strong possibility that ancient Mars was largely cold and icy,” said Niles. “The early atmosphere could have very easily been completely lost very early on leaving behind cold surface temperatures. This may not have provided very hospitable conditions for martian life and may suggest that future exploration should be directed towards the martian subsurface where temperatures were likely to be warmer and water could have been present.”

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