Letter | Published:

Late Tharsis formation and implications for early Mars

Nature volume 531, pages 344347 (17 March 2016) | Download Citation


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.

  • Subscribe to Nature for full access:



Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.


  1. 1.

    et al. Ancient geodynamics and global-scale hydrology on mars. Science 291, 2587–2591 (2001)

  2. 2.

    et al. Primary centers and secondary concentrations of tectonic activity through time in the western hemisphere of Mars. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 20563–20586 (2001)

  3. 3.

    et al. Long-term evolution of the martian crust-mantle system. Space Sci. Rev. 174, 49–111 (2013)

  4. 4.

    Late crustal growth on Mars: evidence from lithospheric extension. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L23201 (2005)

  5. 5.

    & Evaluation of the orogenic belt hypothesis for the formation of the Thaumasia highlands, Mars. J. Geophys. Res. 115, E04008 (2010)

  6. 6.

    & The cause for the north south orientation of the crustal dichotomy and the equatorial location of Tharsis on Mars. Icarus 190, 24–31 (2007)

  7. 7.

    Tectonic patterns on a reoriented planet: Mars. Icarus 44, 745–751 (1980)

  8. 8.

    Reorientation of planets with elastic lithospheres. Icarus 60, 701–709 (1984)

  9. 9.

    , & Rotational bulge and one plume convection pattern: influence on Martian true polar wander. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 272, 212–220 (2008)

  10. 10.

    & Mars without the equilibrium rotational figure, Tharsis, and the remnant rotational figure. J. Geophys. Res. 115, E12020 (2010)

  11. 11.

    The Martian drainage system and the origin of valley networks and fretted channels. J. Geophys. Res. 100, 7479–7507 (1995)

  12. 12.

    , & Updated global map of Martian valley networks and implications for climate and hydrologic processes. J. Geophys. Res. 115, E09008 (2010)

  13. 13.

    , , & Topographic influences on development of Martian valley networks. J. Geophys. Res. 116, E02005 (2011)

  14. 14.

    & . The timing of Martian valley network activity: constraints from buffered crater counting. Icarus 195, 61–89 (2008)

  15. 15.

    & Age dates of valley network drainage basins and subbasins within Sabae and Arabia Terrae, Mars. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 1302–1310 (2014)

  16. 16.

    et al. 3D modelling of the early Martian climate under a denser CO2 atmosphere: temperatures and CO2 ice clouds. Icarus 222, 81–99 (2013)

  17. 17.

    et al. Global modelling of the early Martian climate under a denser CO2 atmosphere: water cycle and ice evolution. Icarus 222, 1–19 (2013)

  18. 18.

    et al. Comparison of “warm and wet” and “cold and icy” scenarios for early Mars in a 3D climate model. J. Geophys. Res. 120, 1201–1219 (2015)

  19. 19.

    & Geologic history of the polar regions of Mars based on Mars Global Surveyor data. I. Noachian and Hesperian Periods. Icarus 154, 3–21 (2001)

  20. 20.

    & North polar region of Mars: topography of circumpolar deposits from Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) data and evidence for asymmetric retreat of the polar cap. J. Geophys. Res. 105, 22455–22486 (2000)

  21. 21.

    et al. History of plains resurfacing in the Scandia region of Mars. Planet. Space Sci. 59, 1128–1142 (2011)

  22. 22.

    et al. SHARAD soundings and surface roughness at past, present, and proposed landing sites on Mars: reflections at Phoenix may be attributable to deep ground ice. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 1936–1949 (2014)

  23. 23.

    & Late Noachian and early Hesperian ridge systems in the south circumpolar Dorsa Argentea Formation, Mars: evidence for two stages of melting of an extensive late Noachian ice sheet. Planet. Space Sci. 109–110, 1–20 (2015)

  24. 24.

    et al. Global distribution of near-surface hydrogen on Mars. J. Geophys. Res. 109, E09006 (2004)

  25. 25.

    & Extensive Hesperian-aged south polar ice sheet on Mars: evidence for massive melting and retreat, and lateral flow and ponding of meltwater. J. Geophys. Res. Planets 106, 12275–12299 (2001)

  26. 26.

    & Ancient glaciation on Mars. Geology 20, 3–7 (1992)

  27. 27.

    & Geologic map of the Hellas region of Mars. USGS Surv. Misc. Invest. Ser. Map I–2694 (scale 1:4,336,000) (USGS, 2001)

  28. 28.

    The spatial distribution of volatiles in the martian hydrolithosphere. Earth Moon Planets 45, 265–290 (1989)

  29. 29.

    & Formation of double-layered ejecta craters on Mars: a glacial substrate model. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 3819–3824 (2013)

  30. 30.

    & Tectonic tests of proposed polar wander paths for Mars and the Moon. Icarus 65, 110–121 (1986)

  31. 31.

    & Theoretical constraints on true polar wander. J. Geophys. Res. 112, B05415 (2007)

  32. 32.

    et al. Time-dependent rotational stability of dynamic planets with elastic lithospheres. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 169–188 (2014)

  33. 33.

    et al. Global mineralogical and aqueous Mars history derived from OMEGA/Mars Express data. Science 312, 400–404 (2006)

  34. 34.

    An Introduction to Planetary Physics: the Terrestrial Planets (John Wiley & Sons, 1968)

  35. 35.

    in Treatise on Geophysics 165–206 (2007)

  36. 36.

    & Mathematical Methods for Physicists 4th edn (Academic Press, 1995)

  37. 37.

    , & MRO Derived Gravity Science Data Products, MRO-M-RSS-5-SDP-V1.0, NASA Planetary Data System, (2008)

  38. 38.

    MOLA initial experiment gridded data record, MGS-M-MOLA-5-IEGDR-L3-V1.0, NASA Planetary Data System, (1999)

  39. 39.

    & Global Dynamics of the Earth: Applications of Normal Mode Relaxation Theory to Solid-Earth Geophysics (Kluwer Academic, 2004)

  40. 40.

    ESRI. Arc Hydro Tools Overview (Environmental Systems Research Institute, 2004)

  41. 41.

    Some thoughts on analyzing topographic habitat characteristics. In Remotely Wild (GIS, Remote Sensing, and Telemetry Working Group of The Wildlife Society, June 2005)

  42. 42.

    et al. Long term evolution and chaotic diffusion of the insolation quantities of Mars. Icarus 170, 343–364 (2004)

  43. 43.

    et al. Geologic map of Mars: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Map 3292, scale 1:20,000,000 (2014)

Download references


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


  1. GEOPS—Géosciences Paris Sud, Université Paris-Sud, CNRS, Université Paris-Saclay, Rue du Belvédère, Bâtiment 504-509, 91405 Orsay, France

    • Sylvain Bouley
    • , Antoine Séjourné
    •  & Francois Costard
  2. Institut de Mécanique Céleste et de Calcul des Ephémérides, UMR8028, 77 Avenue Denfert Rochereau, 75014 Paris, France

    • Sylvain Bouley
  3. Geosciences Environnement Toulouse, Université de Toulouse III UMR 5563, 14 Avenue Edouard Belin, 31400 Toulouse, France

    • David Baratoux
  4. Institut de Recherche pour le Développement et Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire, Dakar, Sénégal

    • David Baratoux
  5. Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA

    • Isamu Matsuyama
  6. Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique, Institut Pierre Simon Laplace, CNRS, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris, France

    • Francois Forget
    •  & Martin Turbet


  1. Search for Sylvain Bouley in:

  2. Search for David Baratoux in:

  3. Search for Isamu Matsuyama in:

  4. Search for Francois Forget in:

  5. Search for Antoine Séjourné in:

  6. Search for Martin Turbet in:

  7. Search for Francois Costard in:


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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sylvain Bouley.

Extended data

Supplementary information

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Data relating to the main paper.

About this article

Publication history






Rights and permissions

To obtain permission to re-use content from this article visit RightsLink.


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.