“Supereruptions” have occurred on Mars for 500 million years

There are volcanoes capable of producing eruptions powerful enough to release oceans of dust and toxic gases into the air, which can block sunlight and alter the climate of planets for decades. Now, a study reveals that extreme volcanic events like this could have happened on Mars. By studying the topography and composition of Arabia Terra, a region north of the Red Planet, scientists have found evidence of thousands of “super-eruptions,” the most violent we know.

  • Volcanoes on Mars may be active and melting ice below the surface
  • Mars may have had volcanic activity in the last thousand years
  • Volcanoes found on Mars may expel mud, not lava

These super eruptions may have released water vapor , carbon dioxide and sulfur in the air, and appear to have occurred 4 billion years ago on the Martian surface over a period of more than 400 millions of years. “Each of these eruptions had a significant climatic impact,” explains Patrick Whelley, the geologist who led the analysis of Arabia Terra. For him, the gases released may have thickened Mars’ atmosphere or blocked sunlight.

When these powerful eruptions occur, they release enough material to fill millions of Olympic pools with molten rocks and gases — and this material also includes a blanket of ash that can reach thousands of kilometers from the eruption site. Then the volcanoes responsible for eruptions of this magnitude collapse into a “caldeira”, a giant structure that can be tens of kilometers wide.

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Some of the craters on Arabia Terra, which have rocks arranged in layers (Image: Reproduction /NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

These structures have already been found on Earth — and seven of them identified in Arabia Terra signaled that, perhaps, there may have been volcanoes capable of super eruptions there. Initially, it was thought that they were formed by the impact of asteroids, but it was in 503877 that scientists first proposed that they were volcanic caldera : they noticed that they were not perfectly round, as expected from craters, and also showed signs of collapse.

So, Whelley and his colleagues decided to follow up on these formations. Instead of looking for volcanoes, they looked for the ashes of volcanic eruptions. This idea came about after they met Alexandra Matiella Novak, a volcanologist who was using data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to look for ash elsewhere on Mars. In the end, they closed a partnership to study Arabia Terra in search of the material.

The team followed previous work by scientists who suggested that minerals in the region had volcanic origins, and used images from the MRO Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars instrument to search for the minerals. Analyzing the walls of canyons and craters far from the boilers, where the ash should have gone when carried by the wind, they found volcanic minerals turned to clay after coming into contact with water.

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The scientists then produced three-dimensional topographical maps of Arabia Terra from the MRO images . By laying out the mineral data across topographic maps of the canyons and craters, they realized that, inside the deposits, the ash was well preserved in overlapping layers according to the eruption. “We’re really seeing what was predicted, and this was the most exciting moment for me,” said Jacob Richardson, geologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Scientists who identified the boilers in

calculated how much material would have been released by the volcanoes, and these results allowed Whelley and his colleagues to estimate how many eruptions it would take to produce ash that thickness—according to Whelley, thousands of them occurred. For now, Arabia Terra is the site that has the only evidence of explosive volcanoes on Mars, which may also exist elsewhere, such as on Jupiter’s moon Io. Now, Richardson hopes the region will teach scientists news about the processes that form planets and moons.

The article with the results of the study was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Source: NASA

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