Experimental evidence for lava-like mud flows under Martian surface conditions


Large outflow channels on ancient terrains of Mars have been interpreted as the products of catastrophic flood events. The rapid burial of water-rich sediments after such flooding could have led to sedimentary volcanism, in which mixtures of sediment and water (mud) erupt to the surface. Tens of thousands of volcano-like landforms populate the northern lowlands and other local sedimentary depocentres on Mars. However, it is difficult to determine whether the edifices are related to igneous or mud extrusions, partly because the behaviour of extruded mud under Martian surface conditions is poorly constrained. Here we investigate the mechanisms of mud propagation on Mars using experiments performed inside a low-pressure chamber at cold temperatures. We found that low viscosity mud under Martian conditions propagates differently from that on Earth, because of a rapid freezing and the formation of an icy crust. Instead, the experimental mud flows propagate like terrestrial pahoehoe lava flows, with liquid mud spilling from ruptures in the frozen crust, and then refreezing to form a new flow lobe. We suggest that mud volcanism can explain the formation of some lava-like flow morphologies on Mars, and that similar processes may apply to cryovolcanic extrusions on icy bodies in the Solar System.

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Fig. 1: Examples of surface expressions of terrestrial sedimentary volcanism caused by muds of various viscosity.
Fig. 2: Examples of morphologies and interior structures of mud flows formed in a low-pressure environment.
Fig. 3: Timeline maps of modelled mud flows derived from the videos and final topographic cross-sections.
Fig. 4: Hypothesis for the development of a low-viscosity mud flow on Mars.

Data availability

The videos, photos, pressure and temperature logs generated and analysed during the current study that support our findings are available in the Zenodo repository with the identifier https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3457148. Source data are provided for this paper.


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The access to the Mars Chamber at the Open University was provided by Europlanet 2020 RI, which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 654208. O.K. was supported by Center for Geosphere Dynamics (Faculty of Science at Charles University) project UNCE/SCI/006. L.W. was supported by the Leverhulme Trust through an Emeritus Fellowship. A.M. received funds from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme Grant agreement no. 308126 (LUSI LAB project, PI A. Mazzini) and acknowledges the support from the Research Council of Norway through its Centres of Excellence funding scheme, Project no. 223272 (CEED). We thank S. Lane and O. Čadek for valuable discussions, R. Koranda from Keramost Company for providing the clay samples and L. Keszthelyi and A. Graettinger for their constructive comments and insightful suggestions, which substantially improved this manuscript.

Author information




The experimental set-up and the methodology were conceived and designed by P.B. and O.K. with the help and advice of S.J.C., J.R., M.R.P., M.R.B., A.M. and E.H. Technical support was provided by M.E.S. The data analysis was done by P.B. with feedback from O.K., L.W., S.J.C., E.H. and A.M. The DEM production was done by O.K. and the theoretical considerations associated with scaling were done by L.W. All the authors contributed to the discussion, interpretation and writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Petr Brož.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editors: Tamara Goldin; Stefan Lachowycz.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Experimental setup.

Schematic illustration showing the experimental setup with the position of thermocouples, photogrammetric targets and four cameras marked.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Table Summary of experimental runs.

Summary of measured and controlled variables for each experimental run.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 3

Topographical data used to produce topographical profiles within Fig. 3d.

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Brož, P., Krýza, O., Wilson, L. et al. Experimental evidence for lava-like mud flows under Martian surface conditions. Nat. Geosci. 13, 403–407 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-020-0577-2

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