Mystery Solved: Mile-High Mounds On Mars Were Created By Wind And Climate Change

Posted: Apr 2 2016, 11:45am CDT | by , Updated: Apr 3 2016, 8:30pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News


Mystery Solved: Mile-High Mounds on Mars were Created by Wind and Climate Change
Sediment-filled craters on Mars (top) in different stages of erosion compared with results of a crater model in wind-tunnel experiment bottom. Credit: Mackenzie Day

Researchers suggest that huge mounds on Mars' surface were the result of wind erosion.

For a long time, enormous mounds on Mars’ surface remained a mystery for scientists. These mounds stand a few miles tall and have been around there for billions of years. Researchers failed to work out what exactly caused those gigantic mounds on the planet – until now.

A team of researchers from the University of Texas may have found the answer. They believe that wind has contributed a lot in shaping the landscape and it is possibly the same factor that has created those mile-high mounds too. The surface of Mars is totally different from what we used to have on our Earth and the analysis of its distinct features itself reflect what type of geological processes the planet has gone through over the years.

“On Mars there are no plate-tectonics and there’s no liquid water, so you don’t have anything to overprint that signature and over billions of years you get those mounds, which speaks to how much geomorphic change you can really instigate with just wind,” said lead author MacKenzie Day from University of Texas. “Wind could never do this on Earth because water acts so much faster and tectonics act so much faster.”

The mysterious sandy mounds on Mars were first spotted in 1970s by NASA’s Viking spacecraft. A more recent analysis suggested that at least one of these mounds – one that is more than 3 miles high and located inside Gale crater – is made of sedimentary rock. The bottom of the crater is full of sediments. Researchers theorize that bottom sediments were brought by water that one flowed on Mars but dried up 3.7 billion years ago while top of sediments were carried by winds. 

“There’s been a theory out there that these mounds formed from billions of years wind erosion, but no one ever had tested that before.” Day said.

Wind erosion is process that detaches soil particles from the surface and transports them by wind.

To test whether the wind could create a mound, researchers mimicked Martian winds in laboratory. They built a mini crater, filled it with damp sand and placed it in wind tunnel. Researchers tracked the distribution of sand until all the sand particles were blown away by the wind. The result was astonishingly similar to what has been expected by the researchers. Wind formed a ring-shape ditch deepened and widened around the edges of the crater and it looked similar to those observed in Martian craters. 

To understand the mechanism, researchers also used computer models and simulated how fast the wind was required to blow those sand particles. Using computer simulations, researchers suggest that the bottom of the sediments was possibly built during the presence of water on Mars while the top was built in a dry time when there was no water, only the wind existed. The findings also link the formation of mounds with changing environment on Red Planet or climate change. 

“This sequence signals the change from a dominance of depositional processes by water during a wetter time, to wind reworking of these water-laid sediments with the onset of aridity, followed by wind erosion once these sediment supplies have been exhausted,” said co-researcher Gary Kocurek. “Overall, we are seeing the complete remaking of the sedimentary cycle on Mars to the one that characterizes the planet today.”

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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