Creepy stuff – possible solifluction on Mars

Post contributed by Andreas Johnsson, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Small-scale lobes on Mars (Fig. 1) are tens to hundreds of meters wide and consist of an arcuate frontal riser that is a meter to meters in height and a tread surface (Johnsson et al., 2012) (Fig. 2). The riser is often, but not always, outlined by clasts visible at HiRISE resolution (50-25 cm/pixel; McEwen et al., 2007). They are found on crater slopes in the martian middle and high latitudes in both hemispheres (e.g., Gallagher et al., 2011; Johnsson et al., 2012; 2017) .

Figure 1

Figure 1. Subset of HiRISE image PSP_008141_2440 (lat: 63.78°N/long: 292.32°E) showing multiple clast-banked lobes in an unnamed 16-km diameter crater (white arrow). Note the degraded gully system (black arrows) and lobes inside the alcove area.

Figure 2x

Figure 2. Simple sketch that show the components of a solifluction lobe.

The martian lobes have a striking resemblance to terrestrial solifluction lobes, in both shape and size (Johnsson et al., 2012) (Fig. 2). Solifluction is a set of processes that acts on slopes in Earth’s cold regions, in regions undergoing repeated freeze-and-thaw cycles (Matsuoka, 2001). They are particularly common in permafrost regions such as Svalbard in the high Arctic, where they form within the near-surface soil layer that undergoes seasonal and/or diurnal thawing, called the active layer (Matsuoka, 2001). Their basic requirements are frost susceptible soils and available soil moisture, which may come from either precipitation or snow melt. With the onset of the cold season the ground freezes and heave occurs due to the formation of segregation ice (ice lenses) in the active layer. This is a common phenomenon in permafrost regions and it often creates bumps in the road during winter time. On hillslopes, when the surface heaves it creates an uplift of soil particles perpendicular to the slope. Later, when the soil thaws, the same particles settle near-vertically. Thus causing a ratchet-like downslope transport called frost creep (Benedict, 1976). Frost creep is commonly associated with a second mode of transport called gelifluction. Gelifluction occurs when a soil horizon, with a high concentration of ice lenses, gets nearly saturated by water upon thawing. This creates a weak layer that may undergo deformation and subsequent downslope transport of soil (Harris et al., 2011).

Figure 3

Figure 3. Comparison of terrestrial and martian landforms. (A) Small-scale lobes in Ruhea crater showing well-defined risers (black arrows). Note the stripes pattern of bright and darker bands separated by 5 meters. The lower right corner shows the upper part of an alcove that is dominated by polygonal fractures. HiRISE image ESP_023679_1365 (lat: 43.24°S/long: 173.01°E). B) Solifluction lobes superposed by stone stripes, Svalbard (white arrows). Image acquired by the airborne HRSC-AX camera, Gwinner et al. (2006).

On Mars, small-scale lobes are spatially associated with landforms that long have been proposed to be permafrost and ice-related such as polygonal patterned ground (e.g., Mangold, 2005) or fluvial such as gullies (e.g., Malin and Edgett, 2000). The lobe-distribution also correlates with locations of suspected shallow ground ice as determined from indirect orbital measurements (Feldman et al., 2004). Based on their morphology and the physical context in which they occur several authors have proposed that small-scale lobes may form in a similar manner as solifluction lobes on Earth. This is not without controversy since the current climate is not favorable for thaw and active-layer formation. Authors have proposed that salts in the regolith may suppress the freezing temperature to allow solifluction under sub-freezing conditions (e.g., Gallagher et al., 2011; Balme et al., 2015). Alternatively, or in concert with the freezing point depression of salts, previous climate conditions may have been recently favorable for thaw in local environments such as craters (Madeleine et al., 2009). The stratigraphic and spatial relationship between small-scale lobes and recent permafrost landforms and gullies suggests that the lobes also formed within the last few million years (Gallagher et al., 2011; Johnsson et al., 2012; Soare et al., 2016). If this interpretation is correct, they may act as marker landforms for environments that experienced transient liquid water in the relatively recent past and represent a yet un-quantified mode of sediment transport and of erosion on martian hillslopes.

Further reading

Balme, M.R., Gallagher, C.J., Hauber, E., 2013. Morphological evidence for geologically young thaw of ice on Mars: A review of recent studies using high-resolution imaging data. Progress in Physical Geography 37(3), pp. 289-324.

Benedict, J.B., 1976. Frost creep and gelifluction features: A review. Quat. Res. 6, 55–76.

Feldman, W.C., et al., 2004. Global distribution of near-surface hydrogen on Mars. Journal of Geophysical Research E: Planets 109(9), pp. E09006 1-13.

Johnsson, A., Reiss, D., Hauber, E., Hiesinger, H., Zanetti, M., 2014. Evidence for very recent melt-water and debris flow activity in gullies in a young mid-latitude crater on Mars. Icarus 235, pp. 37-54.

Gallagher, C., Balme, M.R., Conway, S.J., Grindrod, P.M., 2011. Sorted clastic stripes, lobes and associated gullies in high-latitude craters on Mars: Landforms indicative of very recent, polycyclic ground-ice thaw and liquid flows. Icarus 211 (1), 458–471. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2010.09.010.

Gallagher, C., Balme, M.R., 2011. Landforms indicative of ground-ice thaw in the northern high latitudes of Mars. In: Balme, M., Gupta, S., Gallagher, C., Bargery, A. (Eds.), Martian Geomorphology. Geol. Soc. London, Special Publication 356, pp. 87–110.

Gwinner, K., Coltelli, M., Flohrer, J., Jaumann, R., Matz, K.-D., Marsella, M., Roatsch, T., Scholten, F., and Trauthan, F., 2006. The HRSC-AX Mt. Etna Project: High-Resolution Orthoimages and 1 m DEM at Regional Scale: International Archives of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, v. XXXVI, Part 1, http://isprs.free.fr/documents/Papers/T05-23.pdf.

Harris, C., Davies, M.C.R., Rea, B.R., 2003. Gelifluction: Viscous flow or plastic creep? Earth Surf. Process. 28, 1289–1301.

Hauber, E. et al., 2011. Periglacial landscapes on Svalbard: Terrestrial analogs for cold-climate landforms on Mars. In: Garry, W.B., Bleacher, J.E. (Eds.), Analogs for Planetary Exploration. Geological Society of American Special Publication 483, pp. 177–201.

Hauber, E. et al., 2011. Landscape evolution in martian mid-latitude regions: Insights from analogous periglacial landforms in Svalbard. In: Balme, M.R., Bargery, A.S., Gallagher, C.J., Gupta, S. (Eds.), Martian Geomorphology. Geological Society, London, Special Publication 356, pp. 111–131.

Johnsson, A., Conway, S.J., Reiss, D., Hauber, E., Hiesinger, H., 2017. Bi-hemispheric (periglacial) mass wasting on Mars. In: Soare, S., Conway, S.J., Clifford, S. (Eds.), Dynamic Mars: Recent and Current Landscape Evolution of the Red Planet. Elsevier (accepted for publication). 

Johnsson, A., Reiss, D., Hauber, E., Zanetti, M., Hiesinger, H., Johansson, L., Olvmo, M., 2012. Periglacial mass-wasting landforms on Mars suggestive of transient liquid water in the recent past: Insights from solifluction lobes on Svalbard. Icarus 218, 489–505.

Kreslavsky, M., Head III, J.W., Marchant, D., 2008. Periods of active permafrost layer formation during the geological history of Mars: Implications for circum-polar and mid-latitude surface processes. Planet. Space Sci. 56 (2), 289–302. doi:10.1016/j.pss.2006.02.010.

Madeleine, J.-B., Forget, F., Head, J.W., Levrard, B., Montmessim, F., Millour, E., 2009. Amazonian northern mid-latitude glaciation on Mars: A proposed climate scenario. Icarus 203, 390–405.

Malin, M.C. and Edgett, K.S., 2000. Evidence for recent groundwater seepage and surface runoff on Mars. Science 288, 2330–2335.

Mangold, N., 2005. High latitude patterned grounds on Mars: Classification, distribution and climatic control. Icarus 174, 336–359.

Matsuoka, N., 2001. Solifluction rates, processes and landforms: A global review. Earth Sci. Rev. 55, 107–134.

McEwen, A.S., and 14 others, 2007. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 112, no. E5, E05S02, doi: 10.1029/2005JE002605.

Nyström, E., Johnsson, A., 2014. Aspect dependence of small-scale lobes in the northern hemisphere of Mars. EPSC Abstracts Vol. 9, EPSC2014-480-2, 2014.

Sizemore, H.G., Zent, A.P., Rempel, A.W., 2015. Initiation and growth of martian ice lenses. Icarus 251, pp. 191-210.

Soare, R.J., Conway, S.J., Gallagher, C., Dohm, J.M., 2016. Sorted (clastic) polygons in the Argyre region, Mars, and possible evidence of pre- and post-glacial periglaciation in the Late Amazonian Epoch. Icarus 264, pp. 184-197.

Ballantyne, C.K., and Harris, C., 1994. The Periglaciation of Great Britain. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994. pp 330. ISBN 0-521-32459-9. Earth Surf. Process. Landforms (20) 773.

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