The Great (and Recent) Martian Flood

The Red Planet may be home to a vast ocean of water—and it's straining to break free

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NASA / MOLA Team / Smithsonian Institution

It’s a sad thing when a planet dies young. Earth has been pulsing with life for close to 4 billion years—a thumping example of what can happen when everything goes right. Mercury and Venus were stillborn—one a dry, airless, roasted rock; the other suffocated by a dense, overheated atmosphere that ruled out life before it could even get started. And then there’s Mars—once balmy, once wet, once protected by a blanket of air. It may once too have been home to life—and it still could be, though likely in the form of underground microbes.

But even in its cold and dessicated state, Mars stirs still. Its tenuous winds blow, its ice caps expand and shrink, tracks that appear to be a result of trickling springtime water form on mountain faces. Now, it seems that Mars has had a lot more than that going on lately. According to a new study in Science, the planet was the scene of a recent—in geological terms—flood, and if the analysis is correct, it could easily happen again. Never mind the idea of Mars as a planetary has-been, there’s at least a chance it could be a still-is.

The new study, led by geologist Gareth Morgan of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, relied on new readings returned by NASA‘s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been circling the Red Planet since 2006. Some of the spacecraft’s most intriguing surveys have involved the dry sea-beds, riverways and flood channels etched all over the planet, which testify to a wet and turbulent past. All of those features date from long ago—about 3 billion years, which means that the planet has been largely without water for about two-thirds of its 4.5 billion year history.

(FROM THE MAGAZINE: What the Rover Can Teach Us About Mars)

That, at least, is the conclusion to be drawn from the waterways that can be seen, but there are some that can’t be. Mars has flowed with lava as well as water over its long life, and the tracks cut by floods have sometimes been be covered up by eruptions. One of the most mysterious of the obscured waterways is the Marte Vallis formation in the planet’s northern hemisphere. All that’s visible of Marte Vallis is its outflow channel, but where it begins, how deep it is and how old it is have been mysteries. MRO, however, can look straight through the lava, thanks to its Shallow Radar (SHARAD) system.

The SHARAD imager has been used before, but principally to study the polar caps. This was the first time mission planners had used it to study ancient flood patterns, and that turned out to be a very good idea. For starters, Marte Vallis is a lot bigger than anyone realized—about 600 mi. (965 km) long, 62 mi. (100 km) wide and 260 ft. (80 m) deep. The depth, especially, was a surprise. “This is about twice what we had thought,” says Morgan, “and the channels could be deeper still.”

More important was what the shape and topography of the channels revealed. Initially, the floods etched a central waterway, with narrower tributaries threading alongside it; these later merged into larger, variegated channels. There were also tear shaped islands that stood for a short period, before being eroded away on top. “They’re similar in some ways to visible channels elsewhere on Mars and we were able to compare them,” says Morgan. “At Martes Vallis, we identified multiple stages of flooding.” The ruggedness of the waterways also suggest that the flooding played out quickly and violently, on the order of weeks or months.

(MORE: Martian Life? Not. Learning From a False Alarm)

The biggest surprise, though, was the source of all the water. The prevailing theory had been that a large lake or a small sea had breached its barriers and spilled over the surrounding landscape. This is similar to what happened during the Missoula floods in North America’s Pacific northwest when ice dams repeatedly ruptured late in the last Ice Age, 13,000 to 15,000 years ago. The alternative explanation for Martes Vallis was that Marsquakes or volcanoes had cracked open the ground above subsurface reservoirs and released the water. “A fracture system could have been responsible,” says Morgan, “but in the past, the fractures we could see nearby did not cut across the region.”

The SHARAD readings changed that. The telltale cracks, it turns out, indeed radiate precisely where they should to produce the kind of flood the channels suggest. “The floods, fractures and lava could all be linked to underground forces,” says Morgan. “The lava pushes its way up, forms dikes and then breaks through the surface.”

Most dramatic of all was not the how of the flooding but the when—and the when was extremely recent. The age of surface features on worlds can be determined by the simple expedient of counting craters. We know how heavy the cosmic bombardment was during the early days of the solar system and how it tailed off over time. Very heavily cratered surfaces are thus typically old; ones with fewer craters have been resurfaced comparatively recently and then lightly tattooed anew. In the case of Martes Valles, there appear to have been two episodes of volcanic resurfacing—one that occurred 500 million years ago and one just 10 million years ago. The flood channels cut into the older of the two and are partly obscured by the younger. “So the flooding is framed by those dates, taking place sometime between 10 and 500 million years back,” says Morgan.

(MORE: Dirt Found on Mars! Why the Red Planet Makes Us Crazy)

Given the size of Mars, it’s all but certain that its core is still radioactively and gravitationally hot, meaning that volcanism should be continuing up to the present, and indeed some eruptions have been dated from as little as 2.5 million years ago. This makes future eruptions likely—and means future floods are a real possibility. Judging partly by the volume of water spilled during the Martes Vallis event and partly by the fact that the upwelling flood did not cause the surrounding landscape to collapse, Morgan speculates that there could be a layer of water stretching across much or even all of Mars, at a stable depth of 5 to 10 mi. (8 to 16 km). It could be ice, slush or water, depending on how much lava and heating any one region gets. And as we’ve learned from Earth’s polar regions, as long as you’ve got water, extreme cold is no bar to life.

Mars will surely never catch up to us in our solar system’s biology steeplechase. But if the new findings indicate anything, it’s that the Red Planet may at least still have a horse in the race.

PHOTOS: Seeing Red: Forty Years of Mars Exploration

11 comments
Kenmha
Kenmha

One common mistake people make about Noah's flood is that the mountains we see today had to be the same size of the flood It is feasible for only two people to populate the earth. Back then, there was no such thing as contraceptives. As for inbreeding, that's not an issue. Mutation and degradation of DNA had not occurred like we see today. After the earth population increased, it was no longer permitted to have children with a close blood relative. 



JonathanMartin
JonathanMartin

So a global flood on a planet like mars, which has a fraction of the water earth does is scientifically concevable. But a global flood on earth, a planet who's surface is 70% water is patently ridiculous? 

spiglett
spiglett

Interesting too, the source of the Great Martian Flood theories. " fountains of the deep were broken up ..." Sounds very similar.

If the surface of the Earth were smooth, the oceans would cover the Earth to a depth of 2 miles.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@JonathanMartin 


The Martian Flood was not global and by no means actually flooded the planet to the point it was covered in water completely.

The Biblical Global Flood of Noah is INDEED ABSURD/// There is Truly not enough water to cover the worlds land totally let alone to the highest mountain.

More ridiculous you would believe some childish garbage that a man in a giant boat marched all the animals of earth 2 by 2 onto his giant boat and was able to feed and care for them.


Then you are stupid enough to believe that a guy could repopulate the planet with a few humans and only 2 of every species.... Every species on earth including Man would die of inbreeding within a few generations. Lunatic Garbage

So you ignore basic biology and THEN you Ignore that some species are localized like in Australia and i find it pretty stupid to think that kangaroos migrated from the middle east to swim to Australia... The distribution of species around the world makes REPOPULATING FROM THE MIDDLE EAST A STUPID AND IMPOSSIBLE THEORY... Who took all the parrots across the Atlantic to south America from the middle east?


The Biblical Flood is among the stupidest ideas the faithful have and having such a belief should allow people to stand up and make fun of your ignorance wherever you go... For being such a stupid tool you should be recognized.

spiglett
spiglett

@Hadrewsky @JonathanMartin 

whew! I dont think I can reply in this same dispassionate, scientific tone, but here goes.

see the comment on the genome problem below. (This problem also raises serious scientific concerns with many popularized theories of species development.)

As far as species migration, remember the Ice Age lowered sea levels for a long time. Storms blow birds thousands of miles across the globe today.

If there really was a global flood in the past, what would the scientific evidence be? We would find billions of dead things, buried in rock layers laid down by flood waters, all over the earth. We would expect to see a great extinction(s) in the fossil record. what do we find in the geological record?

JonathanMartin
JonathanMartin

@Hadrewsky @JonathanMartin  

Please understand that the flood models proposed by creationists simply accelerate the geological processes of the past during the flood. Hence, before the flood, the great mountain ranges had not yet occured since the tectonic collisions that created them happened during the flood. There is more than enough water to cover the entire earth in this type of scenario. Keep in mind that slow and gradual uplift doesn't explain the great peaks we observe since erosion works faster than their uplift. The mountain ranges are evidence a recent catastrophic past.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@JonathanMartin 

I wont even get into how stupid the idea that Adam and Eve started an inbred human race starting with only 2 of us.

It is obvious you remain completely unable to understand evolution due to some mental deficiencies and I would love you to try and explain what evolution is to me... I would love to see you make an ass of your own brain by stating what evolution is and how it works.


Because Creationism relies on Magic in such a stupid form that it can not even be considered..... WTF do you want to do with science class... You want to teach out kids that God Magicked all of our species into existence with a flash and puff of smoke? You think that stupid ass concept is really sound?


Nothing more stupid than a guy who had his brain damaged by childhood indoctrination by his parents for the express purpose of damaging you mind so that it stopped thinking critically.... Your parents scrambled you brain on purpose and that brain damage makes you think stories based on a terrible group of STOLEN STORIES FROM OTHER RELIGIONS is actually worth believing...Sad

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@JonathanMartin @Hadrewsky 



Keep reading that garbage and you will avoid reading the dating process of said mountain ranges and their strata showing their history.


we know this planet so well we can tell what continents looked like hundreds of millions of years ago.... You best explanation is an event that would release so much energy it would turn the surface of the planet into a ocean of magma/


Your science and explanations is crap..... DITCH THE BIBLE AND LEARN SOMETHING FACTUAL.

steelgoat67
steelgoat67

I will only believe that if Creation.com reports it.

steelgoat67
steelgoat67

Sounds legit to me. A website like Creation.com would only have to support peer-reviewed and unbiased scientific content that speaks dispassionately of observable and falsifiable theories.

JonathanMartin
JonathanMartin

@Hadrewsky@JonathanMartin 

 You need to familiarise yourself with the current state of population genetics. Dr. John Sanford of Cornell university wrote a book called Genetic Entropy and the mystery of the Genome, here is a a follow up article he also wrote about the book.  http://creation.com/genetic-entropy

Please understand: the reason inbreeding is a problem today is because of our deteriorating genome. Errors in our gene code become concentrated by inbreeding. Our current genetic decline of 2-5% per generation according to leading researchers indicates that in the not so distant past, our genome was virtually free from such errors and inbreeding was not a problem. 

the uneven distribution of animals is what one would expect if animals aimlessly wandered from the ark seeking the climate they most preferred. During this migration they would have mated very little. Once arrived in their prefered area, they would then have proceeded to multiply and diversify. Hence the parrots in S.A.are the descendants of a basic parrot type that wandered to that continent after the flood and then diversified. Nothing to it.