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The importance of lake breach floods for valley incision on early Mars



The surface environment of early Mars had an active hydrologic cycle, including flowing liquid water that carved river valleys1,2,3 and filled lake basins4,5,6. Over 200 of these lake basins filled with sufficient water to breach the confining topography4,6, causing catastrophic flooding and incision of outlet canyons7,8,9,10. Much past work has recognized the local importance of lake breach floods on Mars for rapidly incising large valleys7,8,9,10,11,12; however, on a global scale, valley systems have often been interpreted as recording more persistent fluvial erosion linked to a distributed Martian hydrologic cycle1,2,3,13,14,15,16. Here, we demonstrate the global importance of lake breach flooding, and find that it was responsible for eroding at least 24% of the volume of incised valleys on early Mars, despite representing only approximately 3% of total valley length. We conclude that lake breach floods were a major geomorphic process responsible for valley incision on early Mars, which in turn influenced the topographic form of many Martian valley systems and the broader landscape evolution of the cratered highlands. Our results indicate that the importance of lake breach floods should be considered when reconstructing the formative conditions for Martian valley systems.

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Fig. 1: Valley networks and palaeolake outlet canyons on Mars.
Fig. 2: Cumulative distribution of depths for valley networks and palaeolake outlet canyons.
Fig. 3: Transverse valleys on Mars.

Data availability

All data used to conduct the analysis presented here have been archived through the Texas Data Repository and are available at Archived data include georeferenced shapefiles (full valley catalogue, with classifications; open-basin palaeolake database; and masks) and rasters (PBTH output of valley depth).


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This work was supported by funding through NASA MDAP grants 80NSSC17K0442 (T.A.G., G.S.d.Q. and C.I.F.) and 80NSSC17K0454 (A.M.M.). T.A.G. thanks E. Bamber for valuable discussions on transverse valley development on Mars, and J. Clarke for helpful manuscript discussions. This is the University of Texas at Austin Center for Planetary Systems Habitability (UT CPSH) contribution no. 0031.

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Authors and Affiliations



T.A.G. and C.I.F. conceived and designed the study, with input from A.M.M. and G.S.d.Q. T.A.G. conducted data collection, wrote the manuscript, and assisted with data analysis. A.M.M. conducted the data analysis and assisted with data collection. All authors contributed to data collection, interpretation of results, and assisted with writing of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Timothy A. Goudge.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Extended data

is available for this paper at

Peer review information Nature thanks Alan Howard and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Distribution of valleys removed from the original catalogue.

Final catalogue of valley networks in blue, removed valleys in yellow. Background is MOLA hillshade. See Methods for more complete description of each category. a, Inaccurate valley interpretations where the original mapping was not found to be robust. b, Valleys isolated to walls of craters with diameters < 300 km. c, Valleys associated with the crustal dichotomy boundary. d, Valleys associated with outflow channels. e, Valleys associated with Valles Marineris. f, Valleys associated with volcanic plains and edifices. g, Mawrth Vallis (yellow arrow points to valley). h, Uzboi Vallis (yellow arrow points to valley).

Extended Data Fig. 2 Example output from the progressive black top hat (PBTH) transformation.

Valley network depths outlined in black and palaeolake outlet canyon depths outlined in white. Palaeolake basins indicated in gold. Background is the THEMIS daytime infrared mosaic. a, Image centred at −9.4°N, 133.4°E. b, Image centred at −19.5°N, 344.4°E. See also Fig. 1a for locations.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Cumulative distribution of depths for valley networks and palaeolake outlet canyons with Ma’adim Vallis split out.

Note the substantially deeper depths for Ma’adim Vallis (gold), but the consistently deeper depths for palaeolake outlet canyons even with Ma’adim Vallis removed (green). Total volume of each grouping is listed in the legend.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Palaeolake outlet canyon with hanging tributaries.

a, Mosaic of MOLA gridded topography and CTX stereo-derived DEMs B04_011272_1736-F05_037816_1709, B18_016507_1714-F20_043803_1714, and P22_009782_1707-J02_045425_1707 overlain on a mosaic of CTX images. Image centered at −9.0°N, 135.2°E. b–d, Topographic profiles of hanging tributaries entering the main outlet canyon. Data extracted from CTX stereo-derived DEMs. Raw data in grey, 5 point median filtered data in black. A–A’ extracted from DEM P22_009782_1707-J02_045425_1707. B–B’ extracted from DEM B18_016507_1714-F20_043803_1714. C–C’ extracted from DEMs B18_016507_1714-F20_043803_1714 and B04_011272_1736-F05_037816_1709.

Extended Data Table 1 Total lengths of valley networks, palaeolake outlet canyons, and valleys removed from catalogue, as well as length of valley networks and palaeolake outlet canyons with the ±30° latitude and Early Hesperian age masks applied
Extended Data Table 2 Calculated volumes (m3) with different age and/or latitude masks applied
Extended Data Table 3 Comparison of valley volume (m3) estimates presented here with previous work

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Goudge, T.A., Morgan, A.M., Stucky de Quay, G. et al. The importance of lake breach floods for valley incision on early Mars. Nature 597, 645–649 (2021).

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