More wet minerals on Mars

A remote-sensing geologist who focuses on terrestrial matters would likely grind their teeth on seeing papers that use far better data captured from the Martian or lunar surface than are ever likely to be available from the bulk of Earth’s land surface over the next decade at least. Mine are even closer to the gums after reading about hyperspectral data from Mars with high spatial resolution (~20 m), used to locate rocks altered by water on Mars (Carter, J. et al. 2010. Detection of hydrated silicates in crustal outcrops in the northern plains of Mars. Science, v. 328, p. 11682-1686). And, of course, there is no vegetation and not much of an atmosphere to cryptify spectral features of minerals: if there is enough of a mineral exposed to show up, the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) carried by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will spot it. If the mineral has unique features in its spectrum, and most of the hydrated silicates do, it can be classified nicely. Less spatially sharp hyperspectral data from the Observatoire pour la Minéralogie, l’Eau, les Glaces et l’Activité (OMEGA) carried by ESA’s Mars Express is equally discriminating for larger patches.

The two instruments have shown up hundreds of small outcrops of minerals in the southern hemisphere that formed by reactions between the dominantly anhydrous minerals of Mars’s dominantly igneous crust and water. They record an early phase when liquid water was available at the surface. The question is, are they merely a thin veneer? As a check, John Carter (did bearing the same name as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ hero in his Mars novels encourage his fascination with the Red Planet?) of the University of Paris and colleagues used OMEGA and CRISM data to look at deep crust exhumed in several of Mars’s northern hemisphere craters. Clay minerals, chlorite and prehnite do show up clearly, and the hydration reactions must therefore have penetrated up to a kilometre into the crust. The same suite of minerals occur in the southern hemisphere, so during this early wet episode water was available far and wide across the Martian surface. Minerals like prehnite and chlorite are most familiar as products of low-grade metamorphism, which presents a puzzle. Maybe they formed as a result of the temperatures and pressure generated by the impacts themselves. But if that were the case they would be expected to pervade all the excavated rock, whereas they occur in distinct patches next to pristine, highly reactive olivine-rich rocks. One absentee mineral is serpentine that would definitely have formed by the reaction of water with olivine during impacts. So it looks like water pervaded the whole Martian crust down to maybe a kilometre, then this ‘weathered’ layer was blanketed much later by a thick volcanic layer which has been removed in some places by impact excavation.

• Tectonics
Underpinnings of Mediterranean tectonics
The region of the Mediterranean Sea, especially in the Aegean area, has among the most complex active tectonics on Earth. Both the African and Eurasian plates are now barely moving. The basic shaping of the region stems from Africa’s protracted collision with Europe since 40 Ma that resulted in the closure of the Mesozoic Tethys seaway and jumbled both its sedimentary fill and the continental lithosphere that lay on either side of the collision zone. But if surface motion has largely stopped, why is the Mediterranean region so tectonically active? It now seems as though it links to flow in the mantle beneath (Facenna, C. & Becker, T.W. 2010. Shaping mobile belts by small-scale convection. Nature, v. 465, p. 602-605). A mix of GPS tracking of surface motions, evaluation of surface uplift and subsidence, and analysis of seismic tomography of the mantle. Vertical motion of the mantle is most pronounced at shallow mantle depth (250 km), suggesting vigorous convection in quite small cells. The relations to tectonics are complex, but they are interlinked. For instance subducting slabs interfere with shallow mantle flow so that compensating upwellings result, and in turn help drive subduction and volcanism, as in Italy. Overall, the lithospheric motion, from GPS tracking, has a distinct vortex-like pattern in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, which can be modelled from the underlying mantle flow.

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