Martian Volcanoes Grow 1000 Times Slower Than Their Earth Counterparts

Wednesday, 04 October 2017 - 8:04PM
Space
Mars
Wednesday, 04 October 2017 - 8:04PM
Martian Volcanoes Grow 1000 Times Slower Than Their Earth Counterparts
J. Cowart, CC BY-SA/Flickr
One of the more comforting facts about volcanoes on Earth is that they don't exactly spring up overnight.

The process of volcanic activity bubbling up under the Earth's crust before erupting in a burst of smoke and ash that would easily ruin a Yellowstone picnic is a slow burn - to go from from flat ground to a fully grown volcano takes anywhere between 10,000 and 500,000 years, meaning that it's very unlikely for a geyser of molten lava to burst up through the floor of your kitchen unless you decided to build your house in an inexplicably warm crater at the top of a mountain.

If Earth volcanoes seem like they take a while to develop, they've got nothing on their Martian cousins. New research from the University of Glasgow suggests that the Red Planet's large volcanoes grow approximately a thousand times slower than those on Earth.

This theory came from a look at the rocks and geography surrounding the volcanoes of Mars - by counting the number of crater impacts around these large mountains, and comparing the composition of Martian rocks that have found their way to Earth as meteorites (it's nice when planets share their toys), it's been possible for the first time to get an approximate date of when these volcanoes first popped up, as well as when they last erupted.



As Mars is positioned right next to the solar system's asteroid belt, it endures a regular barrage of meteorites that leaves the planet covered in pock marks. Volcanic eruptions lead to a new layer of rock covering the surrounding area, which will naturally show fewer craters as it's not been around for quite as long as the surrounding area - thus, but counting the imperfections on Mars' surface, scientists have arrived at their best guess for the age of these volcanoes.

Scientists had previously thought that all of the volcanoes on Mars had long since fallen dormant, thanks to the lack of evidence to suggest that they're erupting any time soon. As it turns out, they're likely very much alive, but growing so slowly as to only erupt very, very rarely. The last eruption on the surface of Mars was probably around 10,000 years ago, which makes Benjamin Cohen, the key scientist on this most recent study, seem a little optimistic in his hope for observing another eruption during his professional career.

The reason why volcanoes grow slower on Mars is due in large part to the planet's crust. Earth experiences volcanoes for the same reason it endures earthquakes - our planet's tectonic plates shift over time, causing molten rock to bubble up under the surface and erupt at weak points where plates have rubbed together.

By contrast, Mars has no tectonic plates, and therefore, volcanoes only form very slowly over eons as a single hotspot of molten activity slowly bottlenecks under the planet's surface for millennia before finally bursting forth in a way that would make all Earth volcanoes feel horribly inadequate.

So, good news, then - while there are plenty of other forces at work on Mars that would make life difficult for humans, the good news is that we probably don't need to worry about a sudden, unexpected volcanic eruption. It's still probably not a good idea to build a house on the planet just yet - there's no threat of lava running through your kitchen, but you will be faced with all those meteorites instead.
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