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Ancient ocean on Mars supported by global distribution of deltas and valleys



The climate of early Mars could have supported a complex hydrological system and possibly a northern hemispheric ocean covering up to one-third of the planet’s surface1,2,3,4,5. This notion has been repeatedly proposed1,2,3,4,5 and challenged6,7 over the past two decades, and remains one of the largest uncertainties in Mars research. Here, we used global databases of known deltaic deposits, valley networks8 and present-day martian topography to test for the occurrence of an ocean on early Mars. The distribution of ancient martian deltas delineates a planet-wide equipotential surface within and along the margins of the northern lowlands. We suggest that the level reconstructed from the analysis of the deltaic deposits may represent the contact of a vast ocean covering the northern hemisphere of Mars around 3.5 billion years ago. This boundary is broadly consistent with palaeoshorelines suggested by previous geomorphologic, thermophysic and topographic analyses, and with the global distribution and age of ancient valley networks. Our findings lend credence to the hypothesis that an ocean formed on early Mars as part of a global and active hydrosphere.

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Figure 1: Data and methodology used for the analysis of the martian deltaic deposits.
Figure 2: Topography, geology and distribution of valleys and deltas on Mars.
Figure 3: Distribution and elevation of martian valley networks.


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This research was supported by NASA Mars Data Analysis Program Grant no. NNX06AE08G. Comments of A. Fairen improved earlier versions of this manuscript. Supplementary Fig. S2 was obtained using the Generic Mapping Tools (P. Wessel, and W. H. F. Smith, New version of the Generic Mapping Tools released, EOS Trans. Amer. Geophys. U., vol. 76, pp. 329, 1995).

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G.D.A. conceived this research study, implemented the deltas’ catalogue and the topographic analyses, and wrote the paper. B.M.H. compiled the valley networks database, discussed the results and contributed to the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gaetano Di Achille.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Di Achille, G., Hynek, B. Ancient ocean on Mars supported by global distribution of deltas and valleys. Nature Geosci 3, 459–463 (2010).

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