And now; salt domes on Mars

The front cover of the August 2009 issue of Geology could be mistaken for an exaggerated oblique aerial view of part of Iran’s Zagros Mountains, well known for their dissected salt domes. It is, however, a simulation of an aerial oblique using digital elevation data from the Valles Marineris area on Mars (Adams et al. 2009. Salt tectonics and collapse of Hebes Chasma, Valles Marineris, Mars. Geology, v.  37, p. 691-694). Hebes Chasma is a roughly oval, steep-sided depression the margins of which show clear signs of some kind of erosion. However, the depression has no outlet, so looks quite bizarre by terrestrial standards: and it is not the only such feature. At its core is a pericline of material that was formerly buried deeper than the flanks of the chasma, which are pretty much horizontal. Unlike the larger, nearby Valles Marineris, Hebes Chasma cannot have formed by erosion of the surface by a huge mass of flowing water, yet 100 thousand cubic kilometres of rock has simply disappeared. Explaining such a gigantic, weird feature taxes the imagination, but the authors do come up with a hypothesis. They reckon that the 105 km3 of material became some kind of thin, briny slurry during an early Martian heating event, which drained downwards into a vast aquifer. For that to happen demands a thick, subsurface layer of dirty ice that melted, and an extremely porous substrate able to channel away the escaping muddy brine. How the pericline formed is not explained, except that it appears in a lab model made of sand, glass beads and ductile silicone polymer, when the silicone drained out through slots in the model’s base. There is plenty of evidence that the surroundings of the chasma collapsed spectacularly, and if the pericline formed by the rising of low-density material dominated by ductile salts (or ice) then it is a likely story. But where did the 100 thousand km3 of gloopy brine go? My guess it followed a secret passage to emerge into the far larger Valles Marineris… Even if there is a crewed mission to Mars, to land anywhere near Valles Marineris would be suicidal, it is so precipitous. So, this is yet another Martian mystery that will linger in a febrile kind of way.


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