The Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover found evidence for groundwater activity in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars1,2 in the form of aeolian and fluvial sediments3 composed of sulphate-rich grains. These sediments appear to have experienced diagenetic modification in the presence of a fluctuating water table3,4,5. In addition to the extensive secondary aqueous alteration, the primary grains themselves probably derive from earlier playa evaporites1,2,4. Little is known, however, about the hydrologic processes responsible for this environmental history—particularly how such extensive evaporite deposits formed in the absence of a topographic basin. Here we investigate the origin of these deposits, in the context of the global hydrology of early Mars, using numerical simulations, and demonstrate that Meridiani is one of the few regions of currently exposed ancient crust predicted to have experienced significant groundwater upwelling and evaporation. The global groundwater flow would have been driven primarily by precipitation-induced recharge and evaporative loss, with the formation of the Tharsis volcanic rise possibly playing a role through the burial of aquifers and induced global deformation. These results suggest that the deposits formed as a result of sustained groundwater upwelling and evaporation, rather than ponding within an enclosed basin. The evaporite formation coincided with a transition to more arid conditions6 that increased the relative impact of a deep-seated, global-scale hydrology on the surface evolution.
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This work was supported in part by the NASA Planetary Geology and Geophysics Program and the NASA Mars Data Analysis Program, both at Washington University. We thank B. Banerdt for use of his spherical harmonic loading model.
Reprints and permissions information is available at www.nature.com/reprints. The authors declare no competing financial interests.
This file contains Supplementary Equation 1 and Supplementary Figures S1-S2 with Legends. Supplementary Equation 1 gives the equation used in the hydrological modeling. Supplementary Figure S1 illustrates the hydrological effects of Tharsis growth in schematic format. Supplementary Figure S2 presents the assumed rate of Tharsis growth and BPT migration, and the flux of water from the buried aquifers as a function of time used in the model. (PDF 321 kb)
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Andrews-Hanna, J., Phillips, R. & Zuber, M. Meridiani Planum and the global hydrology of Mars. Nature 446, 163–166 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05594
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