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Martian stepped-delta formation by rapid water release


Deltas and alluvial fans preserved on the surface of Mars provide an important record of surface water flow1,2,3. Understanding how surface water flow could have produced the observed morphology is fundamental to understanding the history of water on Mars. To date, morphological studies have provided only minimum time estimates for the longevity of martian hydrologic events, which range from decades to millions of years4,5,6,7. Here we use sand flume studies to show that the distinct morphology of martian stepped (terraced) deltas8,9,10,11 could only have originated from a single basin-filling event on a timescale of tens of years. Stepped deltas therefore provide a minimum and maximum constraint on the duration and magnitude of some surface flows on Mars. We estimate that the amount of water required to fill the basin and deposit the delta is comparable to the amount of water discharged by large terrestrial rivers, such as the Mississippi. The massive discharge, short timescale, and the associated short canyon lengths favour the hypothesis that stepped fans are terraced delta deposits draped over an alluvial fan and formed by water released suddenly from subsurface storage.

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Figure 1: Example of a stepped delta in a martian crater at 8° S, 200° E.
Figure 2: Experimental delta deposited into a crater.
Figure 3: The depositional history for experimental and martian stepped fans.

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This work was supported by an international postdoctoral fellowship from the National Science Foundation (to E.R.K.). Sandphox is licensed by Geodelft BV. We thank A. van Gon Netcher and H. van der Meer for technical support, and D. Harbor and E. Asphaug for comments on the manuscript.

Author Contributions Experimental design was developed and sediment transport analysis conducted by E.R.K., M.v.D. and G.P. Experimental runs and data analysis were conducted by E.R.K. and M.v.D. Timescale analysis was conducted by E.R.K. and M.G.K. E.R.K. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Erin R. Kraal.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

The file contains Supplementary Equations, additional references and Supplementary Figure S1 with Legends. (PDF 1650 kb)

Supplementary Data

The file contains Supplementary Data in a form of a spreadsheet for calculating time of stepped deltas. The spreadsheet can be modified to calculate the formation time of stepped deltas on Mars for different parameters. (XLS 39 kb)

Supplementary Movie 1

This file contains Supplementary Movie 1 with experimental formation of a stepped delta in a mock crater. The video shows the experimental run (24 minutes long) that form the fan in Figure 2. The flow begins and high concentration mass flows initiate. There are high rates of infiltration within the channel and the crater floor. At 8 minutes the local substrate is saturated and the water begins to pond in the far end of the crater. As the water level increases, the shorelines prograde up the fan surface, interacting with the depositing sediment to form terraces. The flow migrates in the channel, cutting banks, depositing bars, and incising through knickpoint migration, all of which causes pulses in the sediment discharge. (MOV 155273 kb)

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Kraal, E., van Dijk, M., Postma, G. et al. Martian stepped-delta formation by rapid water release. Nature 451, 973–976 (2008).

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