A first for geochronology: ages from Mars

Remote sensing, including mapping of topographic elevation, and the recent exploits of three surface vehicles – the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity Rovers – have provided lots of data for a host of geological interpreters. Producing a time frame for Martian geological and geomorphological events has, understandably, been limited mainly to the use of stratigraphic principles. Various rock units and surface features can be placed in relative time order through simple stratigraphic principles, such as what sits on top of what and which features cut through pre-existing rock units or are masked by them. The most important guide up to now has been interpretation of the relations between impact craters and both rock units and other geomorphological features. The Inner Planets are assumed to have recorded the same variation through time of the frequency and energies of bombardment, and that has been calibrated to some extent by radiometric dating of impact-related rocks returned from the Moon by the crewed Apollo missions. Some detail of relative timings also emerge from some craters cutting earlier ones. The only other source of Martian ages has been from rare meteorites (there are only 114 of them) whose stable isotope compositions are different from those of terrestrial rocks and more common meteorites. By a process of elimination it is surmised that they were flung from Mars as a result of large impacts in the past to land eventually on Earth. The oldest of them date back to 4.5 Ga, much the same as the estimated age of the earliest crystallisation of magmas on Earth.

MOLA colorized relief map of the western hemis...
Colorised relief map of the western hemisphere of Mars, showing Valles Marineris at centre and the four largest volcanoes on the planet (credit: Wikipedia)

But all Martian stratigraphy is still pretty vague by comparison with that here, with only 4 time divisions based on reference to the lunar crater chronology and 3 based on evidence from detailed orbital spectroscopy and Rover data about the alteration of minerals on the Martian surface. Apart from meteorite dates there is very little knowledge of the earliest events, other than Mars must have had a solid, probably crystalline crust made of mainly anhydrous igneous minerals. This was the ‘target’ on which much of the impact record was impressed: by analogy with the Moon it probably spanned the period of the Late Heavy Bombardment from about 4.1 to 3.7 Ga, equivalent to the Eoarchaean on Earth. That period takes its name – Noachian – from Noachis Terra (‘land of Noah’), an intensely cratered, topographically high region of Mars’s southern hemisphere, whose name was given to this large area of high albedo by classical astronomers. Perhaps coincidentally, the Noachian provides the clearest evidence for the former presence of huge amounts of water on the surface of Mars and its erosional power that formed the gigantic Valles Marineris canyon system. The rocky surface that the craters punctured is imaginatively referred to as the pre-Noachian. A major episode of volcanic activity that formed Olympus Mons and other lava domes is named the Hesperian (another legacy of early astronomical nomenclature). It is vaguely ascribed to the period between 3.7 and 3.0 Ga, and followed by three billion years during which erosion and deposition under hyper-arid conditions formed smooth  surfaces with very few craters and rare evidence for the influence of surface water and ice. It is named, inappropriately as it turns out, the Amazonian.

Remote sensing has provided evidence of  episodes of mineral alteration. Clay minerals have been mapped on the pre-Noachian surface, suggesting that aqueous weathering occurred during the earliest times. Sulfates occur in exposed rocks of early Hesperian age, suggesting abundant atmospheric SO2 during this period of massive volcanicity. The last 3.5 billion years saw only the development of the surface iron oxides whose dominance led to Mars being nickname the ‘Red Planet’.

Curiosity Rover's Self Portrait at 'John Klein...
A ‘selfie’ of Curiosity Rover drilling in Gale Crater (credit: Euclid vanderKroew)

A recent paper (Farley, K.A. and 33 others plus the entire Mars Science Laboratory 2014. In Situ Radiometric and Exposure Age Dating of the Martian Surface. Science, v. 343, online publication DOI: 10.1126/science.1247166) suggests that radiometric ages can be measured ‘in the field’, as it were, by instruments carried by the Curiosity rover. How is that done? Curiosity carries a miniature mass spectrometer and other analytical devices. Drilling a rock surface produces a powder which is then heated to almost 900°C for half an hour to drive off all the gases present in the sample. The mass spectrometer can measure isotopes of noble gases, notably 40Ar, 36Ar, 21Ne and 3He. Together with potassium measured by an instrument akin to and XRF, the 40Ar yields a K-Ar age for the rock. A sample drilled from a fine-grained sedimentary in Gale Crater gave an age of 4.2 Ga, most likely that of the detrital feldspars derived from the ancient rocks that form the crater’s wall, rather than an age of sedimentation. The values for 36Ar, 21Ne and 3He provide a means for establishing how long the rock has been exposed at the surface: all three isotopes can be generated by cosmic-ray bombardment. The sample from Gale Crater gave an age of about 78 Ma that probably dates the eventual exposure of the rock by protracted wind erosion.

By themselves, these ages do not tell geologists a great deal about the history of Mars, but if Curiosity makes it through the higher levels of the sediments that once filled Gale Crater – and there is enough power to repeat the mass spectrometry at other levels – it could provide a benchmark for Noachian events. The exposure age, interesting in its own right, also suggests that sediments in the crater have not been exposed to cosmic-ray bombardment for long enough to have destroyed any organic materials that the science community longs for.

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An early magma ocean on Mars?

The division of the lunar surface into two petrological domains – ancient anorthositic highlands and younger basaltic maria – spurred the idea, as long ago as the early 1970s, that the early Moon had a deep ocean of magma at the surface, whose cooling caused fractional crystallization. Low density plagioclase feldspar, dominated by high-calcium anorthite and bytownite, floated to the surface to form the lunar anorthosites leaving a more mafic mantle from which the mare basalts formed by partial melting. The key evidence in support of this hypothesis lies in the rare-earth elements of the two terrains. Because plagioclase feldspar has a much stronger affinity to incorporate the element europium (Eu) than the other REEs, the lunar anorthosites are enriched in Eu compared with its related elements. If the highland anorthosites did form by fractional crystallisation the remaining magma that formed the lunar mantle would be depleted in Eu yet enriched in the remaining REE. Although there are no samples of the Moon’s mantle there are plenty of the mare basalts that formed when it partially melted, probably as a result of huge impacts around 3.8 billion years ago. They should have inherited dominant features of mantle geochemistry, and indeed they do show characteristic depletion of Eu.

Lunar Highlands, near Descartes Crater. Collec...
Lunar Highland anorthosite, collected by the crew of Apollo 16. (credit: Wikipedia)

The giant-impact hypothesis for the Earth-Moon system presupposes that such a cataclysm would have left much of the outer Earth in much the same molten condition and destined to fractionate in the same manner. There are geochemical hints from terrestrial rocks that do support such an idea. An important target for exploration of Mars has been to check if a magma ocean also existed early in its history. Of the various missions in recent years only two have the capacity to shed useful light on the issue: the US Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey. Both orbiters carry more sophisticated remote sensing instruments than any circling the Earth. The first has the hyperspectral Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) that senses visible to short-wave infrared (VNIR) radiation, the other deploys  the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) that captures different parts of the longer wavelength thermal infrared (TIR) spectrum emitted by surface materials. Both allow spectra of surface materials to be reconstructed and compared with the features of known minerals from the Earth and Moon.

Feldspars are highly reflective for the most part of  the VNIR range but show a shallow, broad absorption feature centred on a wavelength of 1.26 micrometres. Such spectra have been detected using CRISM from parts of the Martian surface in the highlands of its southern hemisphere (Carter, J. & Poulet, F. 2013. Ancient plutonic processes on Mars inferred from the detection of possible anorthositic terrains. Nature Geoscience, v. 6, p. 1008-1012). The authors, from Chile and France, acknowledge that the plagioclase-rich rocks occur only in small patches, unlike the vast tracts on the Moon, and also that on Earth anorthosites are known to have formed by a variety of processes from far smaller magma systems than a veritable ocean of molten rock. Feldspars also show spectral features in the TIR, though not so distinctive, both plagioclase and alkali feldspars being very similar. Moreover, THEMIS deploys sensor for only 10 thermal wavebands, compared with 544 on CRISM.  A team of US remote sensers (Wray, J.J. and 8 others 2013. Prolonged magmatic activity on Mars inferred from the detection of felsic rocks. Nature Geoscience, v. 6, p. 1013-1017) used both CRISM and THEMIS data. While noting resemblances to lunar anorthosites, they adopt a more cautious approach to the spectra and prefer the broad, ‘sack’ term ‘felsic rocks’. It seemed possible from their work that feldspar-rich magmas may have formed by partial melting of common andesitic crust noted from the Martian surface: high spatial resolution images of the occurrences bear some resemblance to outcrops of granitic rocks in arid environments on Earth. That is, there may be highly evolved rocks akin to terrestrial continental crust.

The interesting spectral observations on Mars can only be validated by actual rock samples. While rovers still operating on the Martian surface are well able to produce geochemical data that would petrologically characterise most rocks that they encounter, none of them is in a terrain suitable for resolving this particular issue. Yet, coincidentally, a meteorite found in West Africa shows hallmarks of having been blasted from the surface of Mars and sheds useful light on various hypotheses about the Martian crust http://earth-pages.co.uk/2013/11/21/a-glimpse-of-early-martian-crust/. It is a breccia that may represent the soil or regolith that accumulated from early impacts that shattered and melted surface materials, and it is extremely old: zircons yielded an age of 4428 Ma. The clasts set in a fine matrix consist of a variety of igneous rocks, none of which are anorthosites. Some are coarse grained, plutonic rocks containing both alkali feldspars and plagioclase, which match terrestrial monzonites; broadly speaking members of the granite family. Having formed from the ejecta of large impacts, such regolith materials represent the breadth of compositions across the planet and extending deep into its crust. This one suggests that anorthosites may have been rare on early Mars.

A glimpse of early Martian crust

That planetary scientists are eager for chemical information about the rocks of planet Mars is probably unnecessary information, a vast amount of money having been spend to get three spindly vehicles equipped with miniaturized petrographic instruments onto the Martian surface. Meteoriticists might say, ‘Well, we already have some Mars rock in our lab, and we can collect some more from deserts or ablated blue ice in Antarctica’. Four classes of meteorites are alleged to have been flung from Mars by impacts: the allegation is supported by the materials having oxygen isotope proportions that are different from those in rocks from the Earth or Moon.

Another class of meteorite has joined the Martian family, and it it’s a doozy. Found in the northwestern Sahara Desert the rock is a breccia containing a variety of rocks in the form of clasts (Humayun, M. and 10 others 2013. Origin and age of the earliest Martian crust from meteorite NWA7533. Nature  online doi:10.1038/nature12764). In fact four other meteorites looking much the same were found near NWA7533. The bulk of the material is impact melt rock, now devitrified. Some of the clasts are also melt fragments and spherules, while others are fine-grained basalts, broken crystals and, most exciting, coarser igneous rocks rich in alkali and plagioclase feldspar. Their rare-earth element contents, like those of the Earth’s average continental crust, show evidence of fractional crystallization, particularly the removal of plagioclase to produce a marked depletion in the element europium. Slowly cooled and evolved monzonites of this kind are candidates for Martian crustal material. Overall, the texture of the breccia meteorites closely resembles the material that coats the lunar surface – regolith – but it has been lithified rather than remaining a dust.

Meteorite NWA7533 showing a variety of clasts, including light-coloured monzonite (credit: Humayun et al. 2013; doi:10.1038/nature12764)
Meteorite NWA7533 showing a variety of clasts, including light-coloured monzonite (credit: Humayun et al. 2013; doi:10.1038/nature12764)

Highly evolved igneous rocks, broadly speaking those of granitic composition, are the most likely to contain the mineral zircon, and the monzonite clasts yielded five that the US-Australian-French team subjected to U-Pb dating. The results are astonishing. These zircons formed around 4425 Ma ago, in the first hundred million years of the planet’s evolution, at the same time – within statistical error – as did the earliest materials from Earth and the Moon. Other putative Martian meteorites have yielded evidence from their neodymium isotopes that the earliest event there was the formation of a magma ocean, much as postulated for the Earth-Moon system. The latter is widely regarded as having resulted from a mega impact of the proto-Earth with an object roughly the size of Mars. The Martian monzonites may well be products of fractionation from that magma, subsequently excavated and shattered by a series of later, lesser impacts. If it did come from Mars, NWA7533 probably represents part of the early, heavily cratered highlands of the southern hemisphere of that planet.

The four hemispheric views shown above have be...
Full-color global map showing the regions of Mars imaged by the Hubble telescope (credit: Wikipedia)

It will be a long time before rocks can be lifted from the actual surface of Mars and transported back to Earth, and meteorites with a Martian provenance are so rare, that one can foresee a lot of very frustrated planetary petrogeneticists in the near term and a great deal of field work on desert and ice-cap surfaces looking for similar lumps of far-flung regolith.

Are Martian clays magmatic in origin?

593496main pia14840 full Curiosity Touching Do...
Artist’s Concept of Curiosity’s touchdown(credit: Wikipedia)

The remote detection of spectral features in the infrared that suggest abundant clay minerals on the surface of Mars is the basis for a widely-held view that Mars may once have had moist climatic conditions that encouraged life to form (see The Martian ‘sexy beast’ in September 2012  EPN). The presence of clays, along with suggestive landforms, has also been used to speculate that Mars once harboured long-lived lakes and perhaps even a huge ocean on its northern hemisphere, between 3.7 to 4.1 Ga. It was the clays that pitched the recently arrived Curiosity (aka Mars Exploration)Rover at the Gale crater and its central Aeolis Mons. The latter, also known as Mount Sharp, preserves about 5 km of layered rocks, the lowest of which are clay-rich and hypothesised to be sediments laid down in a lake that filled the crater. Provided Curiosity operates according to plan, we will know soon enough whether or not the layered rocks of Mount Sharp are indeed sediments, but a soon-to-be-published article suggests another explanation than weathering for the production of abundant clay minerals on Mars (Meunier, A. et al. 2012. Magmatic precipitation as a possible origin of Noachian clays on Mars. Nature Geoscience, published online 9 September 2012; DOI: 10.1038/NGEO1572).

Focusing the 100-millimeter Mastcam [detail]
Layered rocks on the flanks of Mount Sharp in Gale crater from Curiosity’s Mastcam (NASA Goddard via Flickr)
The French-US team provides evidence from terrestrial lavas that abundant iron- and magnesium-rich clays, known as smectites, may form at a late stage during crystallization of magma. If magma contains water – and most magmas do – as more and more anhydrous silicates crystallise during cooling water builds up in the remaining liquid. Once silicate crystallisation is complete there remains a watery fluid capable of reacting with some of the silicates to form clay minerals; a process often referred to as pneumatolysis. How much clay is formed depends on the initial water content of the magma. Pneumatolysisoperates on hot lava, whereas weathering occurs at ambient temperature provided the climate is able to support liquid water at the surface. Mars is currently far too cold for that, and ideas of a wet surface environment earlier in the planet’s history demand an explanation for a much warmer climate. Clay minerals do not appear to be present in Mars’s younger rocks, so Meunier and colleagues suggest that as the planet’s mantle evolved early water-rich magmas were gradually replaced by ones with less water: interior Mars was gradually de-gassed and its magmas lost the ability to alter minerals that crystallised from them.

Now, clay minerals are extremely resistant to change except through high-temperature metamorphism. Once formed they can be blown around – Mars has probably always been a very windy place – to end up in aeolian sediments that are plentiful on Mars.  Also, if occasionally water flowed on the surface perhaps by subsurface water venting suddenly, fine-grained pneumatolytic clays would easily be picked up, concentrated as flow speed lessened and deposited in waterlain sedimentary layers.  A dilemma that faces the Curiosity science team is what significance to assign to clays in sediment layers, when they no longer provide unequivocal evidence of weathering.  But will the resistant layers on Mount Sharp turn out to be pneumatolytically altered lava flows?
Note added 28 September 2012: The first scientific triumph of the Curiosity Rover is imagery of sediments in what had been suggested to be an alluvial fan washed into Gale crater. They show gravels with rounded pebbles.

The Martian ‘sexy beast’

Artist’s concept of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) near a canyon on Mars. (Credit: NASA-JPL via Wikipedia)

Why is ’Curiosity’ the latest Mars rover aimed to land at Gale Crater? It seems to have been filled with stratified sediments deposited in the crater over perhaps as long as two billion years after it formed by a meteorite impact. The sediments now occur as a relic of later aeolian erosion at the centre of the crater in the form of a large mound that Curiosity is designed to climb and sample. The big attraction is the detection of clays and sulfate minerals in the sediments using multispectral remote sensing. They clearly suggest the influence of water in the formation of the sediments, hence the suggestion that they are lake sediments. On that assumption, Gale Crater is hoped to be a fruitful site for seeking signs of former biological processes: given the technical circumstances of the mission it is deemed the best site there is on Mars for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory.

Sulfates on Mars have excited geologists enormously, along with their companion clays, because they signify the influence of abundant acid water in the breakdown of Martian primary igneous rocks from which the sediments have undoubtedly been derived. Their formation is undoubtedly the geoscientific ‘sexy beast’ of the last four or five years. Given multi-channel remotely sensed data – and Mars labs are awash with them from several previous missions – sulfates are easy to detect from their distinctive reflectance spectra so there has been abundant pay-back for geologists involved with the Red Planet. But there is water and there is…water. It is hoped to be proved that the depositional medium was standing water or at least abundant subsurface aqueous fluids, which may have lingered for long enough for living organisms to have formed. But there is a possibility that sulfates can form, and so too clays, by superficial weathering processes beneath a humid atmosphere.

English: This oblique, southward-looking view ...
An oblique view of Gale crater showing the landing site and the mound of layered rocks that NASA’s Curiosity rover will investigate. The landing site is outlined in yellow. (Credit: NASA-JPL via Wikipedia)

Erwin Dehouck and  team of French geochemists set out experimentally to recreate conceivable atmospheric and climatic conditions from Mars’s early history to mimic weathering processes (Dehouck, E. et al. 2012. Evaluating the role of sulfide-weathering in the formation of sulfates or carbonates on Mars. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, v. 90, p. 47-63). The experiment involved liquid water and hydrogen peroxide (detected in Mars’s present atmosphere and probably produced photochemically from water vapour) in contact with a CO2 atmosphere.  Martian surface conditions were simulated by evaporation of H2O and H2O2 to mix with dominant CO2, which allowed ‘dew’ to form on the experimental samples. The samples consisted of ground up olivine and pyroxene, important mineral constituents of basalt – feldspar was not used. – mixed with the iron sulfide pyrrhotite, commonly found in terrestrial basalts and meteorites judged to have come from Mars. Samples of each pure mineral and mixtures with the sulfide were left in the apparatus for four years and then analysed in detail.

Even in such a short exposure the silicate-sulfide mixtures reacted to produce sulfate minerals –hexahydrite (MgSO4_6H2O), gypsum (CaSO4_2H2O) and jarosite( KFe3 (OH)6(SO4)2), together with goethite (FeOOH) and hematite (Fe2O3). Without the presence of sulfides, the silicate minerals barely broke down under the simulated Martian conditions but did produce traces of magnesium carbonate. The sulfate bearing assemblages look very like those reported from many locations on Mars. The acid conditions produced by weathering of sulfides to yield sulfate ions are incompatible with preservation of carbonates, as the experiment indicates. However, there are reports of Martian sediments that do contain abundant carbonate minerals.

The researchers’ conclusions are interesting: “These results raise doubts on the need for a global acidic event to produce the sulfate-bearing assemblages, suggest that regional sequestration of sulfate deposits is due to regional differences in sulfide content of the bedrock, and pave the way for reevaluating the likelihood that early sediments preserved biosignatures from the earliest times”. Weathering by dew formation seems quite adequate to match existing observations.

A mighty sag or a big wrench for Mars

MOLA colorized relief map of the western hemis...
Colour-coded relief map of the Thatsis bulge on Mars, with Valles Marineris at left centre (Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, via Wikipedia)

In the Solar System topographic features don’t come larger than Valles Marineris on Mars. At between 5 to 10 kilometres deep and extending along a fifth of the planet’s circumference, it makes the Grand Canyon and The Gorge of the Nile look puny.

The base and margins of this stupendous valley contains all manner of evidence for erosion, huge landslips and signs of collapse into voids in Mars’s crust. Much of the erosion on Mars seems to have stemmed from catastrophic floods several billion years ago, though whether they were all of water or if some were volcanic in origin is being debated (Leverington, D.W. 2011. A volcanic origin for the outflow channels of Mars: Key evidence and major implications. Geomorphology, v. 132, p. 51-75 http://www.webpages.ttu.edu/dleverin/leverington_mars_outflow_channels_geomorphology_2011.pdf  , but see http://www.universetoday.com/94367/did-water-or-lava-carve-the-outflow-channels-on-mars/)

It is difficult to imagine anything other than some kind of fault control over the almost straight, roughly east-west trend of Vales Marineris, but the scale suggests, again, an unmatched scale of tectonics. It has long been thought that the massive canyon resulted from extensional rifting that created a major weakness etched out by later erosion and/or collapse into huge subsurface voids in the crust. Yet there is little sign of commensurately large faults, through there are some. But the structure is an integral part of yet another superlative. It is on the eastern flank of the mighty Tharsis bulge on which several humongous volcanoes, including Mons Olympus, developed: perhaps there is a causal link between the two dominating features.

Jeffrey Andrews-Hanna of the Colorado School of Mines in the US has tried to model the bulge-chasm pair, coming to the conclusion that there is little sign of major extension. The finale of his study zeroes-in on the possibility of dominant subsidence producing the structure (Andrews-Hanna, J.C. 2012. The formation of Valles Marineris:  3. Trough formation through super-isostasy, stress, sedimentation, and subsidence.  Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 117, E06002, doi:10.1029/2012JE004059).

In this model, the Tharsis bulge and its associated volcanic province rose so high that on the scale of the planet it must have created a large positive gravitational anomaly. This remains for the most part, but in the Valles Marineris region the crust is now either in isostatic balance or has large negative gravity anomalies, complicated by the fact that the very carving of the canyon system must have resulted in some uplift through unloading. For a while the whole bulge was supported in this gravitationally unstable state by the strength of the Martian lithosphere, and most of it is still in a state of disequilibrium.

Andrews-Hanna’s novel view is that a small amount of extension allowed residual magma to rise in linear zone along the eventual length of Valles Marineris as dykes. The magmas and their heating effect reduced the strength of the lithosphere, locally removing support for the huge load, which subsided. By creating greater slope on the surface of Tharsis the subsidence would have become a focus for both erosion and sedimentation, the increased sedimentary load adding to the subsidence to give the present stupendous depth of the canyons and chasms.

Polski: NASA World Wind - Mars (MOLA Shaded el...
Simulated oblique view of the topography of Valles Marineris looking westwards (Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, via Wikipedia)

But this isn’t the only model for the canyon system (Yin, A. Structural analysis of the Valles Marineris fault zone: Possible evidence for large-scale strike-slip faulting on Mars. Lithosphere, v. 4 doi:10.1130/L192.1). An Yin of the University of California used a combination of remote sensing data from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey to perform detailed lithological and structural mapping  along Valles Marineris. What emerged were several  fault zones up to 2000 km long. Instead of an expected extensional sense of movement they are strike-slip faults, with displacements of the order of 100 km in a left-lateral sense. Yin’s model is that the canyon system bean as a zone of transtensional  deformation: very different from that of Andrews-Hanna. It also begs the question of the underlying tectonic processes, because strike-slip zone on Earth are usually associated with distributed stress from plate tectonics.

Dust: heating or cooling?

In the left image, thin martian clouds are vis...
Mars: with and without dust storms in 2001. Image via Wikipedia

Once every 13 years on average dust blots out most of the surface of Mars turning it into an orange ball. The last such planet-encircling dust storm occurred in 2001, but lesser storms spring up on a seasonal basis. Yet Martian seasons have very different weather from terrestrial ones because of the greater eccentricity of Mars’s orbit, as well as the fact that its ‘weather’ doesn’t involve water. When Mars is closest to the Sun solar heating is 20% greater than the average, for both hemispheres. The approach to that perihelion marks the start of the dust season which last a half the Martian year. Unsurprisingly, the sedimentary process that dominates Mars nowadays is the whipping up and deposition of sand and dust, though in the distant past catastrophic floods – probably when subsurface ice melted – sculpted a volcanic landscape pockmarked with impact craters up to several thousand kilometres across. Waterlain sediments on early Mars filled, at least in part, many of the earlier craters and probably blanketed the bulk of its northern hemisphere that is the lowest part of the planet and now devoid of large craters. Erosion and sedimentation since that eventful first billion years has largely been aeolian. Some areas having spectacular dunes of many shapes and sizes, whereas more rugged surfaces show streamlined linear ridges, or yardangs (http://earth-pages.co.uk/2011/05/08/winds-of-change/), formed by sand blasting. Most of the dust on Mars is raised by high winds in the thin atmosphere sweeping the great plains and basins, and, by virtue of Stokes’s law, the grains are very much smaller than on Earth.

The dustiest times on Earth, which might have blotted out sizeable areas from alien astronomers, in the last million years have been glacial maxima, roughly every 100 ka with the latest 20 ka ago. Layering in the Antarctic ice core records such dust-dominated frigid periods very precisely. Less intricate records formed away from the maximum extent of ice sheets as layers of fine sediment known as loess, whose thickness variations match other proxy records of palaeoclimate nicely. Loess, either in place or redeposited in alluvium by rivers, forms the most fertile soil known – when the climate is warm and moist. The vast cereal production of lowland China and the prairies of North America coincides with loess: it may seem strange but a large proportion of 7 billion living humans survive partly because of dust storms during glacial periods of the past.

Being derived from rock-forming minerals dust carries with it a diverse range of chemical elements, including a critical nutrient common on land but in short supply in ocean water far offshore: iron in the form of oxide and hydroxide coatings on dust particles – the dust coating your car after rain often has a yellow or pinkish hue because of its iron content. Even when the well-known ‘fertilizer’ elements potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus are abundant in surface ocean water, they can not encourage algal phytoplankton to multiply without iron. Today the most remote parts of the oceans have little living in their surface layers because of this iron deficiency. Yet oceanographers and climatologists are pretty sure that this wasn’t always the case. They are confident simply because reducing the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide and its greenhouse effect to levels that would encourage climate cooling and glacial epochs needed more carbon to be buried on the ocean floors than happens nowadays, and lifeless ocean centres would not help in that.

Dust plume off the Sahara desert over the nort...
Saharan dust carried over the Atlantic Ocean by a tropical cyclone. Image via Wikipedia

At present, the greatest source of atmospheric dust is the Sahara Desert (bartholoet, J. 2012. Swept from Africa to the Sahara. Scientific American, v. 306 (February 2012), p. 34-39). Largely derived from palaeolakes dating from a Holocene pluvial episode, Saharan dust accounts for more than half the two billion metric tonnes of particulate atmospheric aerosols dispersed over the Earth each year. Located in the SE trade-wind belt, the Sahara vents dust clouds across the Atlantic Ocean, most to fall there and contribute dissolved material to the mid-ocean near-surface biome but an estimated 40 million t reaches the Amazon basin, contributing to fertilising the otherwise highly leached tropical rain-forest soils. While over the ocean the high albedo of dust adds a cooling effect to the otherwise absorbent sea surface. Over land the fine particles help nucleate water droplets in clouds and hence encourages rainfall. The climatic functions of clouds and dusts are probably the least known factors in the climatic system, a mere 5% uncertainty in their climatic forcing may mean the difference between unremitting global warming ahead or sufficient cooling by reflection of solar radiation to compensate for the cumulative effects of industrial CO2 emissions.

Recording amounts of dust from marine sediments quantitatively is very difficult and impossible in terrestrial sediments, but superb records tied accurately to time at annual precision exist in ice sheets. Low dust levels in Greenland and Antarctic ice tally well with the so-called ‘Medieval Climate Anomaly’ (a warm period) whereas through the 13th to 19th centuries (the ‘Little Ice Age’) more dust than average circulated in the atmosphere. Crucially, for climate change in the industrial era, there has been a massive spike in dust reaching near-polar latitudes since the close of the 18th century during the period associated with signs of global warming: a counterintuitive relationship, but one that is difficult to interpret. The additional dust may well be a result of massive changes in land use across the planet following industrialised agricultural practices and growing population. There are several  questions: does the additional dust also reflect global warming with which it is correlated, i.e. evaporation of the huge former lakes in the Sahara (e.g. Lake Chad); is the dust preventing additional greenhouse warming that would have taken place had the atmosphere been clearer; is it even the ‘wrong kind of dust’, which may well reflect short-wave solar radiation away but also absorbs the longer wavelength thermal radiation emitted by the Earth’s surface, i.e. an aerosol form of greenhouse warming. Needless to say, neither clouds nor dust can be factored into climate prediction models with much confidence.