Martian Fluvial Flows, Placid and Catastrophic

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Despite the fact that, apart localized dust surfaces in summer, the surface of Mars has had average temperatures that never exceeded about minus 50 degrees C over its lifetime, it also has had some quite unexpected fluid systems. One of the longest river systems starts in several places at approximately 60 degrees south in the highlands, nominally one of the coldest spots on Mars, and drains into Argyre, thence to the Holden and Ladon Valles, then stops and apparently dropped massive amounts of ice in the Margaritifer Valles, which are at considerably lower altitude and just north of the equator. Why does a river start at one of the coldest places on Mars, and freeze out at one of the warmest? There is evidence of ice having been in the fluid, which means the fluid must have been water. (Water is extremely unusual in that the solid, ice, floats in the liquid.) These fluid systems flowed, although not necessarily continuously, for a period of about 300 million years, then stopped entirely, although there are other regions where fluid flows probably occurred later. To the northeast of Hellas (the deepest impact crater on Mars) the Dao and Harmakhis Valles change from prominent and sharp channels to diminished and muted flows at –5.8 k altitude that resemble terrestrial marine channels beyond river mouths.

So, how did the water melt? For the Dao and Harmakhis, the Hadriaca Patera (volcano) was active at the time, so some volcanic heat was probably available, but that would not apply to the systems starting in the southern highlands.

After a prolonged period in which nothing much happened, there were catastrophic flows that continued for up to 2000 km forming channels up to 200 km wide, which would require flows of approximately 100,000,000 cubic meters/sec. For most of those flows, there is no obvious source of heat. Only ice could provide the volume, but how could so much ice melt with no significant heat source, be held without re-freezing, then be released suddenly and explosively? There is no sign of significant volcanic activity, although minor activity would not be seen. Where would the water come from? Many of the catastrophic flows start from the Margaritifer Chaos, so the source of the water could reasonably be the earlier river flows.

There was plenty of volcanic activity about four billion years ago. Water and gases would be thrown into the atmosphere, and the water would ice/snow out predominantly in the coldest regions. That gets water to the southern highlands, and to the highlands east of Hellas. There may also be geologic deposits of water. The key now is the atmosphere. What was it? Most people say it was carbon dioxide and water, because that is what modern volcanoes on Earth give off, but the mechanism I suggested in my “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” was the gases originally would be reduced, that is mainly methane and ammonia. The methane would provide some sort of greenhouse effect, but ammonia on contact with ice at minus 80 degrees C or above, dissolves in the ice and makes an ammonia/water solution. This, I propose, was the fluid. As the fluid goes north, winds and warmer temperatures would drive off some of the ammonia so oddly enough, as the fluid gets warmer, ice starts to freeze. Ammonia in the air will go and melt more snow. (This is not all that happens, but it should happen.)  Eventually, the ammonia has gone, and the water sinks into the ground where it freezes out into a massive buried ice sheet.

If so, we can now see where the catastrophic flows come from. We have the ice deposits where required. We now require at least fumaroles to be generated underneath the ice. The Margaritifer Chaos is within plausible distance of major volcanism, and of tectonic activity (near the mouth of the Valles Marineris system). Now, let us suppose the gases emerge. Methane immediately forms clathrates with the ice (enters the ice structure and sits there), because of the pressure. The ammonia dissolves ice and forms a small puddle below. This keeps going over time, but as it does, the amount of water increases and the amount of ice decreases. Eventually, there comes a point where there is insufficient ice to hold the methane, and pressure builds up until the whole system ruptures and the mass of fluid pours out. With the pressure gone, the remaining ice clathrates start breaking up explosively. Erosion is caused not only by the fluid, but by exploding ice.

The point then is, is there any evidence for this? The answer is, so far, no. However, if this mechanism is correct, there is more to the story. The methane will be oxidised in the atmosphere to carbon dioxide by solar radiation and water. Ammonia and carbon dioxide will combine and form ammonium carbonate, then urea. So if this is true, we expect to find buried where there had been water, deposits of urea, or whatever it converted to over three billion years. (Very slow chemical reactions are essentially unknown – chemists do not have the patience to do experiments over millions of years, let alone billions!) There is one further possibility. Certain metal ions complex with ammonia to form ammines, which dissolve in water or ammonia fluid. These would sink underground, and if the metal ions were there, so might be the remains of the ammines now. So we have to go to Mars and dig.

 

 

 

 

 

Science in fiction II

In my previous post, I tried to show that science is a way of thinking, but that left the main issue of the title, “Science in fiction” more or less free of comment. On television, at least, there has been a glut of programs showing forensic science, with various level of realism, but the general rules of cause and effect are generally followed, and given that most of the audience would know nothing of forensic science before these programs started, and given their apparent popularity, I think this shows that if properly done, there is no reason to suspect that readers would be put off by science. The important point of such forensic science programs is that there is usually someone present, like the policeman, who knows nothing about it, and hence can be told what is going to happen. I think the concept of “No surprises!” is important. If the reader is told in advance what is going to happen, and why, the reader accepts it, provided the explanations are reasonably clear.

However, you cannot do that with a surprising discovery, and sometimes the story needs just that to drive the plot along. Thus in my novel Red Gold, which was about fraud during the colonization of Mars, I needed a very big surprise of considerable economic significance to expose the fraud. Up until the critical point, it was believed that colonization of Mars might be very difficult because the soil, or more specifically, the regolith, is rather nitrogen deficient. At the same time, the atmosphere of Mars has very little nitrogen in it. These are standard facts and are correct, as far as we have been able to find out. Rather remarkably, we have found very few nitrates, which is something of a surprise since we have found perchlorates, and it would be something of a surprise if chloride in the regolith was oxidized to perchlorate, and nitrogen did not convert to nitrates. The obvious conclusion is that there has always been very little nitrogen in the Martian soil, although there is a reason why that reasoning might be superficial.

Accordingly, one question is, did Mars accrete with almost no nitrogen, or did it have some, and that nitrogen has disappeared. This is important, because unless nitrogen is plentiful in what is called a reduced form, life is very unlikely to evolve. Suppose the nitrogen was there in the reduced form: that means there was a lot of ammonia around. If it were, as the atmosphere oxidized and carbon species turned into carbon dioxide, the ammonia would be slowly turned into urea, which would then be carried more deeply below the surface by water. Any urea or ammonia left on the surface would be oxidised to nitrogen, and would contribute to the residue in the atmosphere. The surprise could therefore be simply the discovery of urea, which would act as he fertilizer and make the settlement viable. The important point of this, at least for me, was that the story could have the settlement declared viable at a point where the fraudsters were building up a case to cash in on compensation when the settlement failed.

A feature of a genuine scientific discovery is that once you make it, in most cases it also explains a number of other problems that had been a puzzle. In this case, the problem is, where did Martian rivers come from, Mars is too cold for water to flow now, and when these rivers did flow, the sun was only about 2/3 as strong as now. There is significant evidence that Mars has never been above – 60  for any reasonable length of time. Had there been ammonia around, water can flow down to -80,  so the story can be given more credibility. This, admittedly, is something of a special case, but I think there are other options if we do not need to know too many genuine facts. Thus, if something ‘amazing’ only applies to one thing, it looks suspiciously like the proverbial ‘magic wand’, designed to do nothing more than get the author out of a plot hole.

For interested readers, on December 13, Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk will have promotional specials of both Red Gold and Planetary Formation and Biogenesis, the latter of which gives far more details of this theory.