Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. 1

    Malin, M. C. & Edgett, K. S. Evidence for persistent flow and aqueous sedimentation on early Mars. Science 302, 1931–1934 (2003)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Moore, J. M. & Howard, A. D. Large alluvial fans on Mars. J. Geophys. Res. 110 E04005 10.1029/2004JE002352 (2005)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Williams, R. M. E., Zimbelman, J. R. & Johnston, A. K. Aspects of alluvial fan shape indicative of formation process: A case study in southwestern California with application to Mojave Crater fans on Mars. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33 10.1029/2005GRL025618 (2006)

  4. 4

    Moore, J. M., Howard, A. D., Dietrich, W. E. & Schenk, P. M. Martian layered fluvial deposits: Implications for Noachian climate scenarios. Geophys. Res. Lett. 30 10.1029/2003GRL019002 (2003)

  5. 5

    Jerolmack, D. J., Mohrig, D., Zuber, M. T. & Bryne, S. A minimum time for the formation of Holden Northeast fan, Mars. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31 L21701 10.1029/2004GL021324 (2004)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Bhattacharya, J. P., Payenberg, T. H. D., Lang, S. C. & Bourke, M. Dynamic river channels suggest a long-lived Noachian crater lake on Mars. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32 10.1029/2005GL022747 (2005)

  7. 7

    Irwin, R. P., Howard, A. D., Craddock, R. A. & Moore, J. M. An intense terminal epoch of widespread fluvial activity on early Mars: 2. Increased runoff and paleolake development. J. Geophys. Res. 110 E12S15 10.1029/2005JE002460 (2005)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Ori, G., Marinangeli, L. & Baliva, A. Terraces and gilbert-type deltas in crater lakes in Ismenius Lacus and Memnonia (Mars). J. Geophys. Res. E 105 17629 10.1029/1999JE001219 (2000)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Di Achille, G. et al. A steep fan at Coprates Catena, Valles Marineris, Mars, as seen by HRSC data. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33 10.1029/2005GL025435 (2006)

  10. 10

    Dobrea, E. Z. N., Bell, J. F., McConnochie, T. H. & Malin, M. C. Analysis of a spectrally unique deposit in the dissected Noachian terrain of Mars. J. Geophys. Res. E 111 10.1029/2005JE002431 (2006)

  11. 11

    Weitz, C. M., Irwin, R. P., Chuang, F. C., Bourke, M. C. & Crown, D. A. Formation of a terraced fan deposit in Coprates Catena, Mars. Icarus 184, 436–451 (2006)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Hunt, A. G., Grant, G. E. & Gupta, V. T. Spatio-temporal scaling of channels in braided streams. J. Hydrol. 322, 192–198 (2006)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Peakall, J., Ashworth, P. J. & Best, J. L. in The Scientific Nature of Geomorphology: Proceedings of the 27th Binghamton Symposium in Geomorphology (eds Rhodes, B. L. & Thorn, C. E.) 221–253 (Wiley and Sons, Chichester, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Blair, T. C. & McPherson, J. G. in Geomorphology of Desert Environments (eds Abrahams, A. D. & Parsons, A. J.) 354–402 (CRC, Boca Raton, Florida, 1994)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Muto, T. & Steel, R. J. Autostepping during the transgressive growth of deltas: Results from flume experiments. Geology 29, 771–774 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Kleinhans, M. G. Flow discharge and sediment transport models for estimating a minimum time scale of hydrological activity and channel and delta formation on Mars. J. Geophys. Res. 110 10.1029/2005JE002521 (2005)

  17. 17

    Blair, T. C. & McPherson, J. G. Alluvial fans and their natural distinction from rivers based on morphology, hydraulic processes, sedimentary processes, and facies assemblages. J. Sedim. Res. 64, 450–489 (1994)

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Pierson, T. C. & Scott, K. M. Downstream dilution of a lahar: Transition from debris flow to hyperconcentrated stream flow. Wat. Resour. Res. 21, 1511–1524 (1985)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Milliman, J. D. & Syvitski, P. M. River data set. J. Geol. 100, 525–544 (1992)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Nanninga, P. M. & Wasson, R. J. Calculation of the volume of an alluvial fan. Math. Geol. 17, 53–65 (1985)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Van Heijst, M. I. W. M., Postma, G., Meijer, X. D., Snow, J. N. & Anderson, J. A. Analogue flume-model study of the Late Quaternary Colorado/Brazos shelf. Basin Res. 13, 243–268 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Melosh, H. J. Impact Cratering: A Geologic Process (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Clifford, S. A model for the hydrologic and climate behavior of water on Mars. J. Geophys. Res. E 98, 10973–11016 (1993)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Sears, D. W. G. & Chittenden, J. D. On laboratory simulation and the temperature dependence of the evaporation rate of brine on Mars. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32 10.1029/2005GL024154 (2005)

  25. 25

    Hecht, M. H. Metastability of liquid water on Mars. Icarus 156, 373–386 (2002)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information



Corresponding author

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)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing