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Martian valleys carved by ancient snowfall?

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The study found that water-carved valleys at four different locations on Mars appear to have been caused by runoff from orographic precipitation.Photo: AP/NASA
The study found that water-carved valleys at four different locations on Mars appear to have been caused by runoff from orographic precipitation.Photo: AP/NASA

The valleys on Mars may have been carved out by melt-water from ancient snowfalls on the Red Planet, a new study suggests.

Researchers at Brown University have shown that some Martian valleys appear to have been caused by runoff from orographic precipitation — moisture carried part of the way up a mountain and deposited on the slopes.

Valley networks branching across the Martian surface leave little doubt that water once flowed on the Red Planet.

However, researchers said where that ancient water came from — whether it bubbled up from underground or fell as rain or snow — is still debated by scientists.

The study found that water-carved valleys at four different locations on Mars appear to have been caused by runoff from orographic precipitation — snow or rain that falls when moist prevailing winds are pushed upward by mountain ridges.

The new findings are the most detailed evidence yet of an orographic effect on ancient Mars and could shed new light on the planet’s early climate and atmosphere, researchers said.

Kat Scanlon, a geological sciences graduate student at Brown did graduate work in meteorology in Hawaii, which is home to a quintessential orographic pattern. Moist tropical winds from the east are pushed upward when they hit the mountains of Hawaii’s big island.

The winds lack the kinetic energy to reach the mountain summit, so they dump their moisture on the eastern side of the island, making parts of it a tropical jungle. The western side, in contrast, is nearly a desert because it sits in a rain shadow cast by the mountain peak.

Scanlon thought similar orographic patterns might have been at play on early Mars and that the valley networks might be an indicator.

“That’s what immediately came to mind in trying to figure out if these valleys on Mars are precipitation related,” she said. Researchers, including Jim Head, professor of geological sciences, started by identifying four locations where valley networks were found along tall mountain ridges or raised crater rims.

To establish the direction of the prevailing winds at each location, the researchers used a newly developed general circulation model (GCM) for Mars. The model simulates air movement based on the gas composition scientists think was present in the early Mars atmosphere. The team used a model of orographic precipitation to determine where, given the prevailing winds from the GCM, precipitation would be likely to fall in each of the study areas.

Their simulations showed that precipitation would have been heaviest at the heads of the densest valley networks.

The study was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.


  • Orographic precipitation is the snow or rain that falls when moist prevailing winds are pushed upward by mountain ridges

  • As the parcel of air is forced upwards, it expands and also cools.

  • As it cools, it becomes saturated because the amount of water it can hold decreases, so the water vapour begins to condense and finally falls as rain.


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