Geologic Features on Earth Hint at Ancient Martian Oceans

In a new study, geologists at the University of Texas at Austin have examined large-scale polygons on Mars and compared them to similar features on Earth’s seafloor, which they believe may have formed via similar processes.

Terrestrial deep-water marine polygons, front, color image, are potential morphological and genetic analogs to large-scale Martian polygonal features, grayscale (© The Geological Society of America, Inc.)

Understanding these processes may fuel support for the idea of ancient oceans on the Red Planet.

Through examination of data and images from a number of spacecraft, the geologists have found that areas on the northern plains of Mars are divided into large polygon-shaped portions (hundreds of meters to kilometers in diameter) and that sets of these polygons span extensive areas of the Martian surface.

Smaller polygon-shaped bodies are found elsewhere on Mars, but these are best explained by thermal contraction processes similar to those in terrestrial permafrost environments and not likely to form larger polygons.

The study, published in the journal GSA Today, presents a detailed comparison of the geometric features of these large Martian polygons and similar features found in deep-sea sediments here on our planet.

On Earth, polygon-shaped areas, with the edges formed by faults, are common in fine-grained deep-sea sediments. Some of the best examples of these polygon-fault areas are found in the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea. These are imaged using detailed, 3-D seismic surveys conducted to search for offshore oil and gas deposits. Images reproduced in this paper show that these deep-water polygons are also 1,000 meters or greater in diameter.

While the details of deep-sea polygon formation on Earth are complex, the team concludes that the majority of these polygons form in a common environment: sediments made up of fine-grained clays in ocean basins that are deeper than 500 m, and when these sediments are only shallowly buried by younger sediments. A key observation is that the physical mechanism of polygon formation requires a thick, wet, and mechanically weak layer of sediment.

The team also concludes that the slope angle of the sea floor plays an important role in both the formation and preservation of these polygons. Where the seafloor slope is very gentle, the polygons have very regular shapes and sizes.

In many locations where polygons have formed on top of buried topographic features on the seafloor, the shapes of the polygons were altered, and in some cases were broken up and disrupted where the slopes were steepest. Both observations are consistent with deformation of the soft marine sediments as they creep or flow downslope in these areas.

In the northern plains of Mars, where the surface is basically flat, the polygons have very regular shapes and sizes – remarkably similar to the deep-sea polygons found on Earth. In places where the topography on Mars is more varied, and where there may be evidence for other sediment-transport features on the surface, areas of deformed and disrupted polygons can be found – again similar to the disrupted polygons here on Earth.

On the basis of these striking similarities, the team concludes that these features most likely share a common origin and were formed by similar mechanisms in a similar environment.

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Bibliographic information: Moscardelli et al. 2012. Deep-water polygonal fault systems as terrestrial analogs for large-scale Martian polygonal terrains. GSA Today, v. 22, no. 8; doi: 10.1130/GSATG147A.1