Mars Was Once Warmer With Flowing Water But It Didn't Last Long

Although the surface is now cold and desiccated, in early Mars history water formed an open-basin lake, filling the crater, forming a delta, and breaching the lower rim as water flowed to lower elevations (blue).Image: NASA/Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Rendering by James Dickson, Brown University

Evidence of ancient rivers, streams and lakes make it clear that Mars was at some point warm enough for liquid water to flow.

However, research published today in the journal Nature Geoscience shows that these milder conditions didn’t last.

The study, by scientists from Brown University and Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, suggests that water flow on ancient Mars was probably episodic, related to volcanic activity which spewed sulfur dioxide gas into the atmosphere.

The work, which combines the effect of volcanism with the latest climate models of early Mars, suggests that periods of temperatures warm enough for water to flow likely lasted for only tens or hundreds of years at a time.

The latest climate models for early Mars suggests an atmosphere too thin to heat the planet enough for water to flow.

The sun was also much dimmer billions of years ago than it is today, further complicating the picture of a warmer early Mars.

“These new climate models that predict a cold and ice-covered world have been difficult to reconcile with the abundant evidence that water flowed across the surface to form streams and lakes,” said James W. Head, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University.

“This new analysis provides a mechanism for episodic periods of heating and melting of snow and ice that could have each lasted decades to centuries.”

Many of the geological features which suggest water flow date to around 3.7 billion years ago, a time when massive volcanoes are thought to have been active and huge lava outpourings occurred.

As that early active volcanism on Mars ceased, so did the possibility of warmer temperatures and flowing water.

The research may offer new clues about where the fossilized remnants of life might be found on Mars, if it ever existed.

Life in Antarctica, in the form of algal mats, is very resistant to extremely cold and dry conditions and simply waits for the episodic infusion of water to ‘bloom’ and develop.

And the ancient and currently dry and barren river and lake floors on Mars may harbour the remnants of similar primitive life, if it occurred on Mars.

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