Article | Published:

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

Nature Geoscience volume 9, pages 6569 (2016) | Download Citation

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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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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Affiliations

  1. Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale (IAS), CNRS/Université Paris-Sud, 91405 Orsay, France

    • C. Pilorget
  2. Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, Caltech, Pasadena, California 91125, USA

    • C. Pilorget
  3. Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique (LMD) CNRS, Sorbonne Universités, UPMC Univ Paris 06, 75005 Paris, France

    • F. Forget

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Contributions

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

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to C. Pilorget.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2619

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