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Late Tharsis formation and implications for early Mars


The Tharsis region is the largest volcanic complex on Mars and in the Solar System. Young lava flows cover its surface (from the Amazonian period, less than 3 billion years ago) but its growth started during the Noachian era (more than 3.7 billion years ago). Its position has induced a reorientation of the planet with respect to its spin axis (true polar wander, TPW), which is responsible for the present equatorial position of the volcanic province. It has been suggested that the Tharsis load on the lithosphere influenced the orientation of the Noachian/Early Hesperian (more than 3.5 billion years ago) valley networks1 and therefore that most of the topography of Tharsis was completed before fluvial incision. Here we calculate the rotational figure of Mars (that is, its equilibrium shape) and its surface topography before Tharsis formed, when the spin axis of the planet was controlled by the difference in elevation between the northern and southern hemispheres (hemispheric dichotomy). We show that the observed directions of valley networks are also consistent with topographic gradients in this configuration and thus do not require the presence of the Tharsis load. Furthermore, the distribution of the valleys along a small circle tilted with respect to the equator is found to correspond to a southern-hemisphere latitudinal band in the pre-TPW geographical frame. Preferential accumulation of ice or water in a south tropical band is predicted by climate model simulations of early Mars applied to the pre-TPW topography. A late growth of Tharsis, contemporaneous with valley incision, has several implications for the early geological history of Mars, including the existence of glacial environments near the locations of the pre-TPW poles of rotation, and a possible link between volcanic outgassing from Tharsis and the stability of liquid water at the surface of Mars.

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Figure 1: Noachian/Early Hesperian valley networks distribution and density12 before and after TPW.
Figure 2: Permanent ice deposits predicted by the global climate model for early Mars, with obliquity 45°, a circular orbit and mean surface pressure ~0.2 bar.
Figure 3: Scenario for a TPW driven by a late growth of Tharsis contemporaneous with valley network incision.


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This research was funded by the GEOPS laboratory, the Programme National de Planétologie of INSU-CNRS and the Centre National d’Etude Spatiale (CNES).

Author information




S.B. conceived the project. S.B and D.B. drafted the manuscript with contributions from all authors and performed calculations of palaeo poles from valley networks distribution. I.M. performed the calculation of the rotational figure of Mars and its surface topography before TPW and Tharsis. F.F. and M.T. performed early Mars climate model simulations applied to the pre-TPW topography. A.S. and S.B. performed calculations of stream network for a topography of Mars with and without Tharsis.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sylvain Bouley.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Map of Tharsis region with 0 m, 3,000 m and 6,000 m isoaltitude lines.

Noachian terrains are mapped in light red for terrains lower than 3,000 m and in dark red for terrains higher than 3,000 m. Hesperian and Amazonian terrains are in grey. Age units are taken from the most recent geological map of this region43. The black cross on Tharsis Montes is the location of the centre of mass of the Tharsis dome.

Extended Data Figure 2 Modelled stream network before and after Tharsis emplacement.

a, b, Digital Elevation Model (DEM) with 1° per pixel resolution without Tharsis (a) and with Tharsis (b). The stream network was modelled using the Arc Hydro tool in ArcGIS.

Extended Data Figure 3 Rose diagram of orientations of the modelled stream network.

a, Before Tharsis emplacement (N = 702). b, After Tharsis emplacement (N = 698). The orientation values are grouped into 45° sectors. N is the total number of orientation measurements.

Extended Data Figure 4 Geological map of the north polar region.

The red cross indicates the location of the palaeo north pole (PNP), inferred from the valley network distribution. Figure modified from ref. 43; US Geological Survey.

Extended Data Figure 5 Orthographic projection of lower-limit concentrations of water abundance at latitudes poleward of 50° N.

The red cross indicates the location of the palaeo north pole, inferred from the valley network distribution. Figure modified with permission from figure 5 of Feldman, W. C. et al.24, J. Geophys. Res., John Wiley and Sons, copyright 2004 by the American Geophysical Union.

Extended Data Figure 6 Predicted global-scale stress and tectonic patterns due to the Tharsis-driven TPW event.

Solid circles indicate the locations of the palaeo poles. In the stress pattern (a), crosses indicate directions and relative magnitudes of principal stresses, and orange and blue lines correspond to extensional and compressive stresses, respectively. In the tectonic pattern (b), the orange, blue, and light grey lines indicate the strike of the expected normal, thrust and strike–slip faults, respectively. Contours correspond to the deviator stress in units of MPa. Solid black lines mark the boundaries between different tectonic regions.

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Bouley, S., Baratoux, D., Matsuyama, I. et al. Late Tharsis formation and implications for early Mars. Nature 531, 344–347 (2016).

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