Scientists Discover Potential Martian Water Source
Volcanoes have a reputation for wreaking havoc on all living things. However, on Mars, groundbreaking new research from a team of scientists at Brown University suggests that a volcano on Mars located underneath an immense glacier could be responsible for creating large lakes of liquid water in the recent past.
The volcano in question is called Arsia Mons. The researchers believe that its slopes may have previously been covered in giant sheets of glacial ice. Then, following a volcanic eruption, it would have become home to one of the most recent habitable environments ever discovered on Mars. Arsia Mons boasts an impressive size, is the third tallest Martian Volcano and is one of the largest mountains discovered in the entire solar system (it's twice as tall as Mount Everest!).
New analysis of the landform shows that there were eruptions along the volcano's northwest flank that likely occurred at the same time that it was covered by a glacier, and the heat from the eruption would have melted the glacial ice to form englacial lakes, which are bodies of water that form inside of glaciers (picture bubbles of liquid water floating inside a half-frozen ice cube). While scientists are still calculating how much water may have been present and how long it remained in liquid form, the amount is guaranteed to be substantial since scientists already estimate that the ice-covered lakes held hundreds of cubic kilometers of meltwater.
To confirm that a water-producing eruption took place while the glacier was present, Kat Scanlon, a researcher from Brown, collaborated with a team of scientists from the Lancaster Environmental Centre in the U.K. for evidence of volcanic lava flowing in that region during that time frame. Using data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Scanlon discovered lava pillow formations that resemble the formations found on Earth when lava erupts on the ocean floor. Scanlon's team also found ridges and mounds on the Martian terrain which indicate that lava flow constrained by glacial ice was once present. They also found evidence that there was once a river in the area that was produced by a jökulhlaup, or a massive flood that occurs when water trapped by glaciers breaks free.
Even though the conditions on Mars are fairly frigid, the sheer volume of water makes it likely that it remained in a liquid state for quite some time. As a result, it is possible that there was liquid water present long enough to produce a habitable environment that could be colonized by microbial life forms.
With these new discoveries, Arsia Mons will likely be an important destination when the manned mission to Mars arrives on the Red Planet in the 2030s. Scientists believe that there may even be some remnants of that same glacial ice, buried under rock and soil debris. Regardless of the implications regarding life on Mars, this ice likely preserves a perfect record of the Martian atmosphere from hundreds of millions of years ago.