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Rivers raged on Mars later into its history than previously thought and were wider than those on Earth, new study reveals

April 6, 2019 Lifestyle No Comments Email Email


 A new study by the University of Chicago scientists theorizes that significant river runoff persisted on Mars later into its history than previously thought.

The study, recently published in Science Advances, also suggests that the river runoff was intense – rivers on Mars were wider than those on Earth today – and occurred at hundreds of locations on the red planet.

This complicates the picture for scientists trying to model the ancient Martian climate, said lead study author Edwin Kite, assistant professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago. “It’s already hard to explain rivers or lakes based on the information we have. This makes a difficult problem even more difficult,” Kite said.

But Kite added that the constraints could be useful in winnowing the many theories researchers have proposed to explain the climate.

It’s a puzzle why ancient Mars had liquid water. Mars has an extremely thin atmosphere today, and early in the planet’s history, it was also only receiving a third of the sunlight of present-day Earth, which shouldn’t be enough heat to maintain liquid water. “Indeed, even on ancient Mars, when it was wet enough for rivers some of the time, the rest of the data looks like Mars was extremely cold and dry most of the time,” Kite said.

Seeking a better understanding of Martian precipitation, Kite and his colleagues analyzed photographs and elevation models for more than 200 ancient Martian riverbeds spanning over a billion years. These riverbeds are a rich source of clues about the water running through them and the climate that produced it. For example, the width and steepness of the riverbeds and the size of the gravel tell scientists about the force of the water flow, and the quantity of the gravel constrains the volume of water coming through.

Kite said that the analysis shows clear evidence for persistent, strong runoff that occurred well into the last stage of the wet climate, and it also provides guidance for those trying to reconstruct the Martian climate. For example, the size of the rivers implies the water was flowing continuously, not just at high noon, so climate modelers need to account for a strong greenhouse effect to keep the planet warm enough for average daytime temperatures above the freezing point of water.

Dotted lines mark where the preserved river channel is. (Courtesy of NASA/JPL/Univ. Arizona/UChicago)

The rivers also show strong flow up to the last geological minute before the wet climate dries up. “You would expect them to wane gradually over time, but that’s not what we see,” Kite said. The rivers get shorter—hundreds of kilometers rather than thousands—but discharge is still strong. “The wettest day of the year is still very wet.”



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