Research Suggests Warmth and Flowing Water on Early Mars Were Episodic

Science and Children, January 2015 | Go to article overview

Research Suggests Warmth and Flowing Water on Early Mars Were Episodic


Ample evidence of ancient rivers, streams, and lakes make it clear that Mars was at some point warm enough for liquid water to flow on its surface. While that may conjure up images of a tropical Martian paradise, recent research throws a bit of cold water on that notion.

The study suggests that warmth and water flow on ancient Mars were probably episodic, related to brief periods of volcanic activity that spewed tons of greenhouse-effect-inducing sulfur dioxide gas into the atmosphere. The work, which combines the effect of volcanism with the latest climate models of early Mars, suggests that periods of temperatures warm enough for water to flow likely lasted for only tens or hundreds of years at a time.

With all that's been learned about Mars in recent years, the mystery of the planet's ancient water has deepened in some respects. The latest generation of climate models for early Mars suggests an atmosphere too thin to heat the planet enough for water to flow. The Sun was also much dimmer billions of years ago than it is today, further complicating the picture of a warmer early Mars.

"These new climate models that predict a cold and ice-covered world have been difficult to reconcile with the abundant evidence that water flowed across the surface to form streams and lakes," says James W. Head, coauthor of the recent paper with Itay Halevy. "This new analysis provides a mechanism for episodic periods of heating and melting of snow and ice that could have each lasted decades to centuries."

Halevy and Head explored the idea that heating may have been linked to periodic volcanism. Many of the geological features that suggest water flow date to around 3.7 billion years ago, a time when massive volcanoes are thought to have been active and huge lava outpourings occurred. On Earth, however, widespread volcanism often leads to cooling rather than warming. Sulfuric acid particles and thick ash reflect the Sun's rays, and that can lower temperatures. But Head and Halevy thought the effects of sulfur in Mars' dusty atmosphere might have been different. …

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