Early Mars was covered in ice sheets and not flowing rivers, claims study that analyzed over 10,000 valleys

According to scientists, while current research was focused on the Red Planet, analytical tools developed for this work can be applied to uncover more about the early history of our planet

                            Early Mars was covered in ice sheets and not flowing rivers, claims study that analyzed over 10,000 valleys
(Getty Images)

For years since valleys on Mars were first discovered, the assumption had been that rivers once flowed on the Red Planet, eroding all of these valleys. Scientists now say that a large number of the valley networks that scar Mars' surface was carved by water melting beneath glacial ice, not by free-flowing rivers as previously believed. The findings throw "cold water on the dominant warm and wet ancient Mars hypothesis", which suggests that rivers, rainfall and oceans once existed on Mars, according to researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) who conducted the study.

The authors developed and used new techniques to examine more than 10,000 Martian valleys. They used a novel algorithm to infer the underlying erosion processes. "There are hundreds of valleys on Mars, and they look very different from each other. If you look at Earth from a satellite you see a lot of valleys: some of them made by rivers, some made by glaciers, some made by other processes, and each type has a distinctive shape. Mars is similar, in that valleys look very different from each other, suggesting that many processes were at play to carve them," writes lead author Anna Grau Galofre in the analysis published in Nature Geoscience.

Grau Galofre was a former PhD student in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at UBC and is currently a School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) post-doctoral fellow at Arizona State University.

The researchers also compared the Martian valleys to the subglacial channels in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and uncovered striking similarities. The similarity between many Martian valleys and the subglacial channels on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic motivated the authors to conduct the comparative study. "Devon Island is one of the best analogs we have for Mars here on Earth — it is a cold, dry, polar desert, and the glaciation is largely cold-based," says co-author Gordon Osinski, a professor in Western University's department of earth sciences and Institute for Earth and Space Exploration.

The early Martian landscape probably looked similar to this image of the Devon ice cap, say researchers. (Anna Grau Galofre)

According to the research team, the findings are the first evidence for "extensive subglacial erosion driven by channelized meltwater drainage" beneath an ancient ice sheet on Mars. "The findings demonstrate that only a fraction of valley networks match patterns typical of surface water erosion, which is in marked contrast to the conventional view. Using the geomorphology of Mars' surface to rigorously reconstruct the character and evolution of the planet in a statistically meaningful way is, frankly, revolutionary," says co-author Mark Jellinek, a professor in UBC's Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences. 

Collage showing Mar’s Maumee valleys (top half) superimposed with channels on Devon Island in Nunavut (bottom half). The shape of the channels, as well as the overall network, appears almost identical. (Anna Grau Galofre)

The study could also help explain how the valleys would have formed 3.8 billion years ago on a planet that is further away from the Sun than Earth, during a time when the Sun was less intense. "Climate modeling predicts that Mars' ancient climate was much cooler during the time of valley network formation. We tried to put everything together and bring up a hypothesis that hadn't been considered: that channels and valleys networks can form under ice sheets, as part of the drainage system that forms naturally under an ice sheet when there's water accumulated at the base," says Grau Galofre. 

According to the authors, such environments would also support better survival conditions for possible ancient life on Mars. A sheet of ice would lend more protection and stability of underlying water, as well as providing shelter from solar radiation in the absence of a magnetic field — something Mars once had, but which disappeared billions of years ago, they explain.

While the current research was focused on Mars, the analytical tools developed for this work can be applied to uncover more about the early history of our own planet. Jellinek says he plans to use these new algorithms to analyze and explore erosion features left over from very early Earth history. "Currently we can reconstruct rigorously the history of global glaciation on Earth going back about a million to five million years. This work will enable us to explore the advance and retreat of ice sheets back to at least 35 million years ago — to the beginnings of Antarctica, or earlier — back in time well before the age of our oldest ice cores. These are very elegant analytical tools," says Jellinek.

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