Nav: Home

New study suggests possibility of recent underground volcanism on Mars

February 12, 2019

WASHINGTON -- A study published last year in the journal Science suggested liquid water is present beneath the south polar ice cap of Mars. Now, a new study in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters argues there needs to be an underground source of heat for liquid water to exist underneath the polar ice cap.

The new research does not take sides as to whether the liquid water exists. Instead, the authors suggest recent magmatic activity - the formation of a magma chamber within the past few hundred thousand years - must have occurred underneath the surface of Mars for there to be enough heat to produce liquid water underneath the kilometer-and-a-half thick ice cap. On the flip side, the study's authors argue that if there was not recent magmatic activity underneath the surface of Mars, then there is not likely liquid water underneath the ice cap.

"Different people may go different ways with this, and we're really interested to see how the community reacts to it," said Michael Sori, an associate staff scientist in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona and a co-lead author of the new paper.

The potential presence of recent underground magmatic activity on Mars lends weight to the idea that Mars is an active planet, geologically speaking. That fact could give scientists a better understanding of how planets evolve over time.

The new study is intended to further the debate around the possibility of liquid water on Mars. The presence of liquid water on the Red Planet has implications for potentially finding life outside of Earth and could also serve as a resource for future human exploration of our neighboring planet.

"We think that if there is any life, it likely has to be protected in the subsurface from the radiation," said Ali Bramson, a postdoctoral research associate at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona and a co-lead author of the new paper. "If there are still magmatic processes active today, maybe they were more common in the recent past, and could supply more widespread basal melting. This could provide a more favorable environment for liquid water and thus, perhaps, life."

Examining the environment

Mars has two giant ice sheets at its poles, both a couple of kilometers thick. On Earth, it is common for liquid water to be present underneath thick ice sheets, with the planet's heat causing the ice to melt where it meets the Earth's crust.

In a paper published last year in Science, scientists said they detected a similar phenomenon on Mars. They claimed radar observations detected evidence of liquid water at the base of Mars's south polar ice cap. However, the Science study did not address how the liquid water could have gotten there.

Mars is much cooler than Earth so it was unclear what type of environment would be needed to melt the ice at the base of the ice cap. Although previous research has examined if liquid water could exist at the base of Mars's ice caps, no one had yet looked at the specific location where the Science study claimed to have detected water.

"We thought there was a lot of room to figure out if [the liquid water] is real, what sort of environment would you need to melt the ice in the first place, what sort of temperatures would you need, what sort of geological process would you need? Because under normal conditions, it should be too cold," Sori said.

Looking for the heat

The new study's authors first assumed the detection of liquid water underneath the ice cap was correct and then worked to figure out what parameters were needed for the water to exist. They performed physical modeling of Mars to understand how much heat is coming out of the interior of the planet and if there could be enough salt at the base of the ice cap to melt the ice. Salt lowers the melting point of ice significantly so it was thought that salt could have led to melting at the base of the ice cap.

The model showed salt alone would not raise the temperature high enough to melt the ice. Instead, the authors propose there needs to be additional heat coming from Mars's interior.

One plausible heat source would be volcanic activity in the planet's subsurface. The study's authors argue that magma from the deep interior of Mars rose towards the planet's surface about 300,000 years ago. It did not break the surface, like a volcanic eruption, but pooled in a magma chamber below the surface. As the magma chamber cooled, it released heat that melted the ice at the base of the ice sheet. The magma chamber is still providing heat to the ice sheet to generate liquid water today.

The idea of volcanic activity on Mars is not new - there is a lot of evidence of volcanism on the planet's surface. But most of the volcanic features on Mars are from millions of years ago, leading scientists to believe volcanic activity below and above the planet's surface stopped long ago.

The new study, however, proposes that there could have been more recent underground volcanic activity. And, if there was volcanic activity happening hundreds of thousands of years ago, there's a possibility it could be happening today, according to the study's authors.

"This would imply that there is still active magma chamber formation going on in the interior of Mars today and it is not just a cold, sort of dead place, internally," Bramson said.

Jack Holt, a professor at the at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, said the question of how water could exist underneath the south polar ice cap immediately came to his mind after the Science paper was published, and the new paper adds an important constraint on the possibility of water being there. He said it will likely add to the debate in the planetary science community about the finding and point out that more research needs to be done to evaluate it.

"I think it was a great idea to do this type of modeling and analysis because you have to explain the water, if it's there, and so it's really a critical piece of the puzzle," said Holt, who was not involved in the new research but did talk to the study's authors before they submitted the paper. "The original paper just left it hanging. There could be water there, but you have to explain it, and these guys did a really nice job of saying what is required and that salt is not sufficient."
-end-
Founded in 1919, AGU is a not-for-profit scientific society dedicated to advancing Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity. We support 60,000 members, who reside in 135 countries, as well as our broader community, through high-quality scholarly publications, dynamic meetings, our dedication to science policy and science communications, and our commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce, as well as many other innovative programs. AGU is home to the award-winning news publication Eos, the Thriving Earth Exchange, where scientists and community leaders work together to tackle local issues, and a headquarters building that represents Washington, D.C.'s first net zero energy commercial renovation. We are celebrating our Centennial in 2019. #AGU100

This press release and accompanying images can be found at: https://news.agu.org/press-release/new-study-suggests-possibility-of-recent-underground-volcanism-on-mars/

Notes for Journalists

This paper is freely available for 30 days. Journalists and public information officers (PIOs) can download a PDF copy of the article by clicking on this link: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1029/2018GL080985

Journalists and PIOs may also request a copy of the final paper by emailing Lauren Lipuma at llipuma@agu.org. Please provide your name, the name of your publication, and your phone number.

Neither the paper nor this press release is under embargo.

Paper Title:

"Water on Mars, with a grain of salt: local heat anomalies are required for basal melting of ice at the south pole today"

Authors:

Michael M. Sori and Ali M. Bramson: Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA.

AGU press contacts:

Lauren Lipuma
+1 (202) 777-7396
llipuma@agu.org

Nanci Bompey
+1 (202) 777-7524
nbompey@agu.org

Contact information for the researchers:

Michael Sori
+1 (954) 632-9860
sori@lpl.arizona.edu

Ali Bramson
+1 (608) 438-4994
bramson@lpl.arizona.edu

American Geophysical Union

Related Ice Sheet Articles:

Collapse of the European ice sheet caused chaos
Scientists have reconstructed in detail the collapse of the Eurasian ice sheet at the end of the last ice age.
Oversized landforms discovered beneath the Antarctic ice sheet
A team of scientists led by the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB, Belgium) and the Bavarian Academy of Sciences (Germany) have now discovered an active hydrological system of water conduits and sediment ridges below the Antarctic ice sheet.
Climate change clues revealed by ice sheet collapse
The rapid decline of ancient ice sheets could help scientists predict the impact of modern-day climate and sea-level change, according to research by the universities of Stirling in Scotland and Tromsø in Norway.
Last remnant of North American ice sheet on track to vanish
The last piece of the ice sheet that once blanketed much of North America is doomed to disappear in the next several centuries, says a new study by researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and the University of Colorado Boulder.
Mysterious 'crater' on Antarctica indication of vulnerable ice sheet
The East Antarctic ice sheet is more vulnerable than expected, due to a strong wind that brings warm air and blows away the snow.
New study shows impact of Antarctic Ice Sheet on climate change
An international team of researchers has concluded that the Antarctic Ice Sheet actually plays a major role in regional and global climate variability -- a discovery that may also help explain why sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere has been increasing despite the warming of the rest of the Earth.
East Greenland ice sheet has responded to climate change over the last 7.5 million
Using marine sediment cores containing isotopes of aluminum and beryllium, a group of international researchers has discovered that East Greenland experienced deep, ongoing glacial erosion over the past 7.5 million years.
Historic shrinking of Antarctic Ice Sheet linked to CO2 spike
Twenty-three million years ago, the Antarctic Ice Sheet began to shrink, going from an expanse larger than today's to one about half its modern size.
Tracking the amount of sea ice from the Greenland ice sheet
The Greenland ice sheet records information about Arctic climate going back more than 120.000 years.
This week from AGU: Greenland's thawing ice sheet, Nepal's landslides, and more
This week from AGU are papers on Greenland's thawing ice sheet, Nepal's landslides, and four more research spotlights.

Related Ice Sheet Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Changing The World
What does it take to change the world for the better? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on activism—what motivates it, why it matters, and how each of us can make a difference. Guests include civil rights activist Ruby Sales, labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, author Jeremy Heimans, "craftivist" Sarah Corbett, and designer and futurist Angela Oguntala.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#520 A Closer Look at Objectivism
This week we broach the topic of Objectivism. We'll be speaking with Keith Lockitch, senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, about the philosophy of Objectivism as it's taught through Ayn Rand's writings. Then we'll speak with Denise Cummins, cognitive scientist, author and fellow at the Association for Psychological Science, about the impact of Objectivist ideology on society. Related links: This is what happens when you take Ayn Rand seriously Another Critic Who Doesn’t Care What Rand Thought or Why She Thought It, Only That She’s Wrong Quote is from "A Companion to Ayn Rand"