The internal structure of a debris-covered glacier on Mars revealed by gully incision

Butcher, F. E. G.; Arnold, N. S.; Conway, S. J.; Berman, D. C.; Davis, J. M. and Balme, M. R (2023). The internal structure of a debris-covered glacier on Mars revealed by gully incision. Icarus (Early access).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.icarus.2023.115717

Abstract

Viscous flow features (VFFs) in Mars' mid latitudes are analogous to debris-covered glaciers on Earth. They have complex, often curvilinear patterns on their surfaces, which probably record histories of ice flow. As is the case for glaciers on Earth, patterns on the surfaces of VFFs are likely to reflect complexities in their subsurface structure. Until now, orbital observations of VFF-internal structures have remained elusive. We present observations of internal structures within a small, kilometer-scale VFF in the Nereidum Montes region of Mars' southern mid latitudes, using images from the Context Camera (CTX) and High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) instruments on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The VFF-internal structures are revealed by a gully incision, which extends from the VFF headwall to its terminus and intersects curvilinear undulations and a crevasse field on the VFF surface. Near to the VFF terminus, the curvilinear VFF-surface undulations connect to the VFF-internal layers, which are inclined and extend down to the VFF's deep interior, and possibly all the way to the bed. Similar structures are common near to the termini of glaciers on Earth; they form under ice flow compression where ice thins and slows approaching the ice margin, and ice flow is forced up towards the surface. We performed 3D ice flow modeling which supports this analogy, revealing that the inclined VFF-internal structures, and associated curvilinear structures on the VFF surface, are located in a zone of strong ice flow compression where ice flow deviates upwards away from the bed. The inclined VFF-internal structures we observe could represent up-warped VFF-internal layering transported up to the surface from the VFF's deep interior, or thrust structures representing debris transport pathways between the VFF's bed and its surface. Our observations raise numerous considerations for future surface missions targeting Mars' mid-latitude subsurface ice deposits. Inclined layers formed under flow compression could reduce the requirement for high-cost, high-risk deep drilling to address high-priority science questions. They could allow futures missions to (a) access ice age sequences for palaeoenvironmental reconstruction via shallow sampling along transects of ice surfaces where layers of progressively older age outcrop, and/or (b) access samples of ice/lithics transported to shallow/surface positions from environments of astrobiological interest at/near glacier beds. However, our observations also raise considerations for potential drilling hazards associated with structural complexities and potential dust/debris layers within subsurface ice deposits on Mars. They highlight the importance of characterizing VFF-surface structures, and their relationships to VFF-internal structure and ice flow histories ahead of ice access missions to Mars.

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