Catastrophic floods on Mars cut some of the planet’s deepest valleys

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This artist’s rendering shows what a more Earth – like Mars might look like with water on the surface.

NASA

Mars is one of the smallest planets in our solar system, but it is also home to some of the largest, deepest, and most dramatic systems of gorges and valleys that have ever been spied on by human (or robotic) eyes. New research suggests that many of these Mars moves were formed by catastrophic climate-driven events of the kind that are currently becoming a more significant threat here on Earth.

“We found that at least a quarter of the total eroded amount of Mars’ valley network was cut by floods by sea ruins,” Planetary Science Institute (PSI) researcher Alexander Morgan explains in a statement.

Morgan is the co-author of a paper published Thursday in the journal Nature that explains how old lakes on the red planet were inflated enough to over-top their rims. The resulting massive floods cut deep ravines and valleys into the planet’s surface.

“It has been known for some time that a few selected Mars valleys were formed from flooding at lake overflows, but our study is the first global analysis,” Morgan said.

Morgan and colleagues used algorithms for global maps of Mars to calculate the total eroded volume of valleys formed by floods at sea breaks.

“Our results show that many Mars valleys are, in fact, more analogous to catastrophic floods on Earth, such as those that shaped the northwestern United States at the end of the last ice age,” Morgan said.

Some of the deep gorges and valleys of the Himalayas and Rocky Mountains were formed when glaciers melted over 15,000 years ago, and lakes below overflowed their banks.

On both Mars and Earth, the catastrophic, landscape-changing floods were driven by warming climates. Mars would eventually continue to lose most of its atmosphere and surface water. Here on Earth, the climate has experienced an accelerated warming of late thanks to man-made climate change.


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Scientists do not dive deep into any connection between ancient Mars and today’s terrestrial global warming on Earth, but on this planet today glacial lake eruption floods (GLOFs) resembles terribly much the forces that shaped ancient Mars and prehistoric earth, albeit on a smaller scale.

The above video from PSI dives a little into the difference between the ancient floods on Mars that were caused by failure of the walls of impact craters that turned lake shores, and failure of glacial moraines on Earth.

“The science behind the devastation they trigger is the same,” PSI says.

In today’s Andes and Himalayas, increased glacier melting is inflated lakes, increasing the risk of flooding. The concern about these floods is not so much how they can reshape the landscape, but rather the destructive threat they pose to life and property in the fertile and populated valleys below.

Climate change on Earth will not cut new gorges comparable to the Grand Canyon, as they did on ancient Mars, but learning about the climatic and geological history of our neighboring planet provides yet another reminder of the power of the natural forces that our species is now directly affects.

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