Catastrophic flooding on Mars carved out some of the deepest valleys on the planet

This artist’s rendering shows how a more Earth-like Mars could appear with water on its surface.

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Mars is one of the smallest planets in our solar system, but it’s also home to some of the largest, deepest, and most spectacular canyon and valley systems ever observed by human (or robotic) eyes. New research suggests that many of these Martian features were formed by catastrophic weather events of the kind that are now becoming a bigger threat here on Earth.

“We found that at least a quarter of the total eroded volume of Martian valley systems was carved out by lake breach floods,” Alexander Morgan, a researcher at the Planetary Science Institute (PSI), said in a statement.

Morgan co-authored a paper published Thursday in the journal Nature that explains how the Red Planet’s ancient lakes became swollen enough to overhang their edges. The resulting massive floods carved deep canyons and valleys into the surface of the planet.

“A few select Martian valleys have been known for some time to have formed as a result of lake overflow floods, but our study is the first global analysis,” Morgan said.

Morgan and his colleagues applied algorithms to global maps of Mars to calculate the total eroded volume of valleys formed by lake flooding.

“Our results show that many Martian valleys are actually more analogous to catastrophic floods on Earth, such as those that shaped the northwestern United States at the end of the last ice age,” Morgan said.

Some of the deep canyons and valleys of the Himalayas and Rocky Mountains were formed when glaciers melted more than 15,000 years ago and the lakes below overflowed their banks.

Both on Mars and on Earth, the catastrophic floods that have altered the landscape have been caused by global warming. Mars would eventually lose most of its atmosphere and surface waters. Here on Earth, the climate has been experiencing accelerated warming in recent times thanks to human-induced climate change.


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Researchers do not delve into any connection between ancient Mars and contemporary terrestrial global warming on Earth, but on this planet today glacial lake overflow floods (GLOF) bear a strong resemblance to the forces that shaped ancient Mars and prehistoric Earth, albeit on a smaller scale.

The video above from PSI dives a bit into the difference between the ancient flooding on Mars, which was caused by the rupture of the walls of impact craters turned into lakeshores, and the rupture of glacial moraines on Earth.

“The science behind the devastation they cause is the same,” says PSI.

In today’s Andes and Himalayas, increased melting glaciers are swelling lakes, increasing the risk of flooding. The concern over these floods is not so much how they may reshape the landscape, but rather the destructive threat they pose to life and property in the fertile, populated valleys below.

Climate change on Earth won’t carve out new canyons comparable to the Grand Canyon as it did on ancient Mars, but learning more about the climatic and geological history of our neighboring planet offers another reminder of the power of natural forces that our species is now directly impacting.

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