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Transport processes induced by metastable boiling water under Martian surface conditions

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Liquid water may exist on the Martian surface today, albeit transiently and in a metastable state under the low atmospheric surface pressure1,2. However, the identification of liquid water on Mars from observed morphological changes is hampered by our limited understanding of how metastable liquids interact with sediments. Here, we present lab experiments in which a block of ice melts and seeps into underlying sediment, and the resulting downslope fluid propagation and sediment transport are tracked. In experiments at Martian surface pressure, we find that pure water boils as it percolates into the sediment, inducing grain saltation and leading to wholesale slope destabilization: a hybrid flow mechanism involving both wet and dry processes. For metastable brines, which are more stable under Martian conditions than pure water, saltation intensity and geomorphological impact are reduced; however, we observed channel formation in some briny flow experiments that may be analogous to morphologies observed on Mars. In contrast, under terrestrial-like experimental conditions, there is little morphological impact of seeping water or brine, which are both stable. We propose that the hybrid flow mechanism operating in our experiments under Martian surface pressure could explain observed Martian surface changes that were originally interpreted as the products of either dry or wet processes.

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Figure 1: Final morphologies of the flows produced on a sand thickness of 1–2 mm by the melting of a frozen block.
Figure 2: Impact and evolution of the flow for different pressures and ice compositions.
Figure 3: Interpretative cross-sections detailing the mechanism of liquid water propagation at Martian pressure.
Figure 4: Examples of current surface changes on Mars.

Change history

  • 04 May 2016

    In the version of the Letter originally published, in Fig. 4b, the image number and coordinates were incorrect and the caption should have read 'Slope streaks (HiRISE image: ESP_035028_1685, centre coordinates: 11.5° S, 290.3° E)'. This has been corrected in all versions of the Letter.


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This work has been funded by ‘Programme National de Planétologie’ and by the P2IO LabEx (ANR-10-LABX-0038) in the framework ‘Investissements d’Avenir’ (ANR-11-IDEX-0003-01) managed by the French National Research Agency (ANR). S.J.C. acknowledges funding from the Leverhulme Trust Grant RPG-397. Thorough advice and help from S. Le Mouélic and O. Bourgeois greatly improved the quality of this article. We thank W. Marra for insightful comments.

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The methodology and experimental set-up was conceived and designed by M.M., S.J.C. and J.G. with significant advice, help and technical support from M.R.P., K.P., A.M., V.C., M.R.B., L.O., F.C. and G.J. All data analysis was done by M.M. with significant feedback from S.J.C., J.G. and K.P. Data about current water ice location and deposition were provided by M.V. and F.P. Physical constraints and models were provided by J.G., S.J.C. and S.C. All authors contributed to discussion, interpretation and writing.

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Correspondence to M. Massé.

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Massé, M., Conway, S., Gargani, J. et al. Transport processes induced by metastable boiling water under Martian surface conditions. Nature Geosci 9, 425–428 (2016).

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