Dating martian climate change

Page, David P.; Balme, Matthew R. and Grady, Monica M. (2009). Dating martian climate change. Icarus, 203(2) pp. 376–389.



Geological evidence indicates that low-latitude polygonally-patterned grounds on Mars, generally thought to be the product of flood volcanism, are periglacial in nature and record a complex signal of changing climate. By studying the martian surface stratigraphically (in terms of the geometrical relations between surface landforms and the substrate) rather than genetically (by form analogy with Earth), we have identified dynamic surfaces across one fifth of martian longitude. New stratigraphical observations in the Elysium-Amazonis plains have revealed a progressive surface polygonisation that is destructive of impact craters across the region. This activity is comparable to the climatically-driven degradation of periglacial landscapes on Earth, but because it affects impact craters – the martian chronometer – it can be dated. Here we show that it is possible to directly date this activity based on the fraction of impact craters affected by polygon formation. Nearly 100% of craters (of all diameters) are superposed by polygonal sculpture: considering the few-100 Ma age of the substrate, this suggests that the process of polygon formation was active within the last few million years. Surface polygonisation in this region, often considered to be one of the signs of young, 'plains-forming' volcanism on Mars, is instead shown to postdate the majority of impact craters seen. We therefore conclude that it is post-depositional in origin and an artifact of thermal cycling of near-surface ground ice. Stratigraphically-controlled crater counts present the first way of dating climate change on a planet other than Earth: a record that may tell us something about climate change on our own planet. Parallel climate change on these two worlds – an ice age Mars coincident with Earth's glacial Quaternary period – might suggest a coupled system linking both. We have previously been unable to generalise about the causes of long-term climate change based on a single terrestrial example – with the beginnings of a chronology for climate change on our nearest planetary neighbour, we can.

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