Methane bursts as a trigger for intermittent lake-forming climates on post-Noachian Mars


Lakes existed on Mars later than 3.6 billion years ago, according to sedimentary evidence for deltaic deposition. The observed fluviolacustrine deposits suggest that individual lake-forming climates persisted for at least several thousand years (assuming dilute flow). But the lake watersheds’ little-weathered soils indicate a largely dry climate history, with intermittent runoff events. Here we show that these observational constraints, although inconsistent with many previously proposed triggers for lake-forming climates, are consistent with a methane burst scenario. In this scenario, chaotic transitions in mean obliquity drive latitudinal shifts in temperature and ice loading that destabilize methane clathrate. Using numerical simulations, we find that outgassed methane can build up to atmospheric levels sufficient for lake-forming climates, if methane clathrate initially occupies more than 4% of the total volume in which it is thermodynamically stable. Such occupancy fractions are consistent with methane production by water–rock reactions due to hydrothermal circulation on early Mars. We further estimate that photochemical destruction of atmospheric methane curtails the duration of individual lake-forming climates to less than a million years, consistent with observations. We conclude that methane bursts represent a potential pathway for intermittent excursions to a warm, wet climate state on early Mars.

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Figure 1: Geologic constraints on the duration and shutdown time of lake-forming climates.
Figure 2: Range of obliquity trajectories possible for Mars, and their probable climate effects.
Figure 3: Triggering of a CH4-enabled lake-forming climate on Mars.


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We are grateful for input from D. E. Archer, J. C. Armstrong, B. L. Ehlmann, V. E. Hamilton, A. D. Howard, R. P. III Irwin, M. C. Palucis, D. Stolper, R. M. E. Williams and R. Wordsworth. We thank J. F. Kasting and A. G. Fairén for useful reviews. Part of the research was carried out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. We acknowledge the University of Chicago’s Research Computing Center and financial support from NASA (NNX16AG55G, NNX15AM49G).

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E.S.K. designed research; M.A.M., Y.L.Y. and D.P.M. contributed new models, model output, and analyses; E.S.K., C.G. and P.G. carried out research; and E.S.K. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Edwin S. Kite.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Kite, E., Gao, P., Goldblatt, C. et al. Methane bursts as a trigger for intermittent lake-forming climates on post-Noachian Mars. Nature Geosci 10, 737–740 (2017).

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