A new study suggests oceans on Mars were shallower and formed several hundred million years earlier than thought, and links their existence to the rise of the planet’s Tharsis volcano system.
Tharsis is a vast volcanic plateau centered near the equator in Mars’ western hemisphere. The region is home to the largest volcanoes in our solar system.
Michael Manga, a University of California, Berkeley professor of earth and planetary science, is senior author of the paper, published Monday (March 19, 2018) in the journal Nature. Manga said in a statement:
Volcanoes may be important in creating the conditions for Mars to be wet.
Those who adhere to the theory that Mars never had oceans of liquid water often point out that estimates of the size of the oceans don’t jibe with estimates of how much water could be hidden on Mars today as permafrost underground, and how much could have escaped into space. These are the main options, scientists say, given that the polar ice caps don’t contain enough water to fill an ocean.
The new study proposes that the oceans formed before or at the same time as Mars’ largest volcanic feature, Tharsis, instead of after the volcanic system formed 3.7 billion years ago.
According to the study, Tharsis was smaller at that time, so it didn’t distort the planet as much as it did later – in particular the plains that cover most of the northern hemisphere and are the presumed ancient seabed.
The assumption was that Tharsis formed quickly and early, rather than gradually, and that the oceans came later. We’re saying that the oceans predate and accompany the lava outpourings that made Tharsis.
Tharsis, now a 3,000-mile-wide (5,000 km) eruptive complex, dominates the topography of Mars. Earth, which is twice the diameter and 10 times more massive than Mars, has no equivalent dominating feature. Tharsis’ bulk creates a bulge on the opposite side of the planet and a depression halfway between. This explains why estimates of the volume of water the northern plains could hold based on today’s topography are twice what the new study estimates based on the topography 4 billion years ago.
The scientists suggest that Tharsis spewed gases into the atmosphere that created a global warming or greenhouse effect that allowed liquid water to exist on the planet, and also that volcanic eruptions created channels that allowed underground water to reach the surface and fill the northern plains.
Bottom line: A new study links water oceans on ancient Mars to the rise of the planet’s Tharsis volcano system.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.