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Formation of gullies on Mars by debris flows triggered by CO2 sublimation

Abstract

Martian gully landforms resemble terrestrial debris flows formed by the action of liquid water and have thus been interpreted as evidence for potential habitable environments on Mars within the past few millennia. However, ongoing gully formation has been detected under surface conditions much too cold for liquid water, but at times in the martian year when a thin layer of seasonal CO2 frost is present and defrosting above the regolith. These observations suggest that the CO2 condensation–sublimation cycle could play a role in gully formation. Here we use a thermo-physical numerical model of the martian regolith underlying a CO2 ice layer and atmosphere to show that the pores beneath the ice layer can be filled with CO2 ice and subjected to extreme pressure variations during the defrosting season. The subsequent gas fluxes can destabilize the regolith material and induce gas-lubricated debris flows with geomorphic characteristics similar to martian gullies. Moreover, we find that subsurface CO2 ice condensation, sublimation and pressurization occurs at conditions found at latitudes and slope orientations where gullies are observed. We conclude that martian gullies can result from geologic dry ice processes that have no terrestrial analogues and do not require liquid water. Such dry ice processes may have helped shape the evolution of landforms elsewhere on the martian surface.

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Figure 1: CO2 sublimation and condensation in the porous soil below the seasonal CO2 ice sheet simulated on the Russell crater megadune (54.5° S, 12.7° E).
Figure 2: Illustration of the sequence of events leading to the formation of CO2-regolith viscous flows and sometimes incision in the icy-dependent mantle.
Figure 3: Illustration of the potential effect of the viscous flows in the formation of gullies on Mars.
Figure 4: Total amount of CO2 gas (m3 yr−1, calculated as in Fig. 1) predicted to diffuse upward through the soil pores below the seasonal CO2 ice layer, as a function of latitude and slope orientation (180° means southward, 0° northward and slope angle is 30°) for obliquities of 25.2° (as today) and 35.2° (as 860,000 years ago).

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank A. Mangeney, M. Vincendon, P.-Y. Meslin and L. Kerber for fruitful discussions about this work. We are also grateful to our colleagues at Caltech, IAS and LMD for inspiration and advice. C.P. acknowledges partial support from NNX14AG54G and CNES. Finally, we thank C. Dundas for constructive comments.

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C.P. and F.F. developed the model and wrote the manuscript. C.P. run the simulations and performed the analyses.

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Correspondence to C. Pilorget.

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Pilorget, C., Forget, F. Formation of gullies on Mars by debris flows triggered by CO2 sublimation. Nature Geosci 9, 65–69 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2619

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