Small martian landslides – are they similar to large landslides on Earth?

Post contributed by Susan J. Conway and Anthony Guimpier, CNRS Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique à Nantes, France.

Landslides have been documented on almost all the solid bodies of the solar system and Mars is no exception. The most famous landslides on Mars are the giant landslides in the Valles Marineris, which were discovered in the images returned by the first Mars Orbiter “Mariner 9” launched in 1971 (Lucchitta, 1979). They have volumes typically ranging from 108-1013 m3 (McEwen 1989; Quentin et al. 2004; Brunetti et al. 2014) and have been found to have occurred periodically since the canyon’s formation 3.5 billion years ago (Quantin et al. 2004). The largest size of terrestrial landslides generally only extends to 108 m3 (McEwen 1989; Quentin et al. 2004).


Image 1: Oblique views of small landslides on Mars. Top: Landslide in Chyrse Choas in HiRISE image PSP_005701_1920 draped over 2 m/pix elevation model. Crater just in front of the landslide is 70 m in diameter and the landslide from crest to toe spans 900 m in elevation. The largest boulders are nearly 40 m in diameter. Bottom: Landslide in Capri Chasma in HiRISE image ESP_035831_1760 draped over 2 m/pix elevation model. Crater on slope is 270 m across and the landslide from crest to toe spans ~1 km of elevation. The largest boulders are just over 30 m in diameter.

Image 1 shows 3D views of two landslides on Mars imaged by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera. Their topography has been reconstructed using stereophotogrammetry – using the difference in two images taken from different angles to build a digital elevation model – a tool available for free from NASA called the Ames Stereo Pipeline. These are relatively small landslides for Mars with volumes less than 108 m3. A landslide with similar dimensions and volume on Earth is the Frank Slide in Alberta, Canada (Image 2). However, there are some interesting differences. The deposits of the Frank Slide spread out as they travelled across the valley floor, whereas the landslides on Mars have deposits with 50 m of relief at their boundaries (they appear to stand up above the surface in the 3D view) and have not extended laterally beyond the detachment zone. This suggests these flows are more viscous than the Frank Slide. The Frank Slide is known for its unusually long runout for its volume (high mobility) and the cause of this is strongly debated (summary in Charrière et al. 2016). The martian examples have a similar runout, yet show morphologies indicative of viscous flows, hence the cause of their mobility is probably different and is also the subject of ongoing work (Lajeunesse et al 2006; Lucas et al. 2007, 2011, 2014). Planetary comparison has the potential to provide important insight into the underlying mechanisms driving the mobility of landslides which can then be used to understand the hazard of their terrestrial counterparts.


Image 2: An oblique view of the Frank Slide taken from Google Earth. The landslide from crest to toe spans ~770 m of elevation. The largest blocks are ~15 m across and the landslide deposits are 1.5 km across at the level of the road.

Further Reading:

Brunetti, M. T., Guzzetti, F., Cardinali, M., Fiorucci, F., Santangelo, M., Mancinelli, P., et al. (2014). Analysis of a new geomorphological inventory of landslides in Valles Marineris, Mars. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 405, 156-168.

Charrière, M., Humair, F., Froese, C., Jaboyedoff, M., Pedrazzini, A., & Longchamp, C. (2016). From the source area to the deposit: Collapse, fragmentation, and propagation of the Frank Slide. Geological Society of America Bulletin, 128(1-2), 332-351.

Lucchitta, B. K. (1979). Landslides in Valles Marineris, Mars. Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, 84(B14), 8097-8113.

Lajeunesse, E., Quantin, C., Allemand, P., & Delacourt, C. (2006). New insights on the runout of large landslides in the Valles‐Marineris canyons, Mars. Geophysical Research Letters, 33(4).

Lucas, A., & Mangeney, A. (2007). Mobility and topographic effects for large Valles Marineris landslides on Mars. Geophysical Research Letters, 34(10).

Lucas, A., Mangeney, A., Mège, D., & Bouchut, F. (2011). Influence of the scar geometry on landslide dynamics and deposits: Application to Martian landslides. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, 116(E10).

Lucas, A., Mangeney, A., & Ampuero, J. P. (2014). Frictional velocity-weakening in landslides on Earth and on other planetary bodies. Nature Communications, 5, 3417.

McEwen, A. S. (1989). Mobility of large rock avalanches: Evidence from Valles Marineris, Mars. Geology, 17(12), 1111-1114.

Quantin, C., Allemand, P., & Delacourt, C. (2004). Morphology and geometry of Valles Marineris landslides. Planetary and Space Science, 52(11), 1011-1022.

Quantin, C., Allemand, P., Mangold, N., & Delacourt, C. (2004). Ages of Valles Marineris (Mars) landslides and implications for canyon history. Icarus, 172(2), 555-572.

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