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The blue region of low topography in the Martian northern hemisphere is hypothesized to be the site of a primordial ocean of liquid water.

The Mars Ocean Hypothesis states that nearly a third of the surface of Mars was covered by an ocean of liquid water early in the planet’s geologic history.[1] This primordial ocean, dubbed Oceanus Borealis,[2] would have filled the Vastitas Borealis basin in the northern hemisphere, a region which lies 4-5 km (2.5-3 miles) below the mean planetary elevation, at a time period of approximately 3.8 billion years ago. Evidence for this ocean includes geographic features resembling ancient shorelines, and the chemical properties of the Martian soil and atmosphere. Early Mars would require a warmer climate and thicker atmosphere to allow liquid water to remain at the surface.[3]


Observational Evidence

There are several physical features in the present geography of Mars that suggest the existence of a primordial ocean. Networks of gullies that merge into larger channels imply erosion by a liquid agent, and resemble ancient riverbeds on earth. Enormous channels, 25 km wide and several hundred meters deep, appear to direct flow from underground aquifers in the Southern uplands into the Northern plains.[3] Much of the northern hemisphere of Mars is located at a significantly lower elevation than the rest of the planet (the Martian dichotomy), and is unusually flat. Along the margins of this region are physical features indicative of ancient shorelines.[2] Sea level must follow a line of constant gravitational potential. After adjustment for polar wander caused by mass redistributions from volcanism, the Martian paleo-shorelines meet this criteria.[4] The Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), which accuratly determined the altitiude of all parts of Mars, found that the watershed for an ocean on Mars covers three-quarters of the planet.[5]

The unique distribution of crater types in the Vastitus Borealis below 2400 m elevation suggest erosion that involved sublimation, and an ancient ocean that would have encompassed a volume of 6 x 107 cubic kilometers.[6]

Recent research published in the Journal of Geophysical Research — Planets, shows a much higher density of stream channels then formerly believed. Regions on Mars with the most valleys are comparable to what is found on our Earth. In the research, the team developed a computer program to identify valleys by searching for U-shaped structures in topographical data. [7] The large amount of valley networks strongly supports rain on the planet in the past. The global pattern of the Martian valleys could be explained with a big northern ocean. A large ocean in the northern hemisphere would explain why there is a southern limit to valley networks; the southernmost regions of Mars, located farthest from the water reservoir, would get little rainfall and would develop no valleys. In a similar fashion the lack of rainfall would explain why Martian valleys become shallower as you go from north to south. [8]

Theoretical issues


Primordial Martian climate

The existence of liquid water on the surface of Mars requires both a warmer and thicker atmosphere. Atmospheric pressure on the present day Martian surface only exceeds that of the triple point of water (6.11 hPa) in the lowest elevations; at higher elevations water can exist only in solid or vapor form. Annual mean temperatures at the surface are currently less than 210 K, significantly less than what is needed to sustain liquid water. However, early in its history Mars may have had conditions more conducive to retaining liquid water at the surface.

Early Mars had a carbon dioxide atmosphere similar in thickness to present-day earth (1000 hPa).[9] Despite a weak early sun, the greenhouse effect from a thick carbon dioxide atmosphere, if bolstered with small amounts of methane[10] or insulating effects of carbon dioxide ice clouds[11], would have been sufficient to warm the mean surface temperature to a value above the freezing point of water. The atmosphere has since been reduced by sequestration in the ground in the form of carbonates through weathering,[9] as well as loss to space through sputtering (an interaction with the solar wind due to the lack of a strong Martian magnetosphere).[12][13]

The obliquity (axial tilt) of Mars varies considerably on geologic timescales, and has a strong impact on planetary climate conditions.[14]


Consideration of chemistry can yield additional insight into the properties of Oceanus Borealis. With a Martian atmosphere of predominantly carbon dioxide, one might expect to find extensive evidence of carbonate minerals on the surface as remnants from oceanic sedimentation. An abundance of carbonates has yet to be detected by the Mars space missions. However, if the early oceans were acidic, carbonates would not be able to form.[15] The positive correlation of phosphorus, sulfur, and chlorine in the soil at two landing sites suggest mixing in a large acidic reservoir.[16] Hematite deposits detected by TES have also been argued as evidence of past liquid water.[17]

Analysis of molecular hydrogen to deuterium ratios in the upper Mars atmosphere from the NASA Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer spacecraft suggests an abundant water supply on primordial Mars.[18]

Fate of the ocean

Given the proposal of a vast primordial ocean on Mars, one may inquire as to the fate of the water. As the Martian climate cooled, the surface of the ocean would have frozen. One hypothesis states that part of the ocean remains in a frozen state buried beneath a thin layer of rock, debris, and dust on the flat northern plain Vastitus Borealis.[19] The water could have also been absorbed into the subsurface cryosphere[1] or been lost to the atmosphere (by sublimation) and eventually to space through atmospheric sputtering[12].

Alternate explanations

The existence of a primordial Martian ocean remains controversial among scientists. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment has discovered large boulders on the site of the ancient seabed, which should contain only fine sediment.[20] The interpretations of some features as ancient shorelines has been challenged.[21]

Alternate theories for the creation of surface gullies and channels include wind erosion[22], liquid carbon dioxide[3], and liquid methane.[17]

Confirmation or refutation of the Mars ocean hypothesis awaits additional observational evidence from future Mars missions.

See also


  1. ^ a b Clifford, S. M. and T. J. Parker, 2001: The Evolution of the Martian Hydrosphere: Implications for the Fate of a Primordial Ocean and the Current State of the Northern Plains, Icarus 154, 40-79.
  2. ^ a b Baker, V. R., R. G. Strom, V. C. Gulick, J. S. Kargel, G. Komatsu and V. S. Kale, 1991: Ancient oceans, ice sheets and the hydrological cycle on Mars, Nature, 352, 589-594.
  3. ^ a b c Read, Peter L. and S. R. Lewis, “The Martian Climate Revisited: Atmosphere and Environment of a Desert Planet”, Praxis, Chichester, UK, 2004.
  4. ^ Zuber, Maria T., 2007: Planetary Science: Mars at the tipping point, Nature, 447, 785-786.
  5. ^ Smith, D. et al. 1999. Science: 284.1495
  6. ^ Boyce, J. M., P. Mouginis, and H. Garbeil, 2005: "Ancient oceans in the northern lowlands of Mars: Evidence from impact crater depth/diameter relationships", Journal of Geophysical Research, 110.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b Carr, Michael H., 1999: Retention of an atmosphere on early Mars, Journal of Geophysical Research, 104, 21897-21909.
  10. ^ Squyres, Steven W. and James F. Kasting, 1994: Early Mars: How warm and how wet?, Science, 265, 744-749.
  11. ^ Forget, F. and R. T. Pierrehumbert, 1997: Warming Early Mars with Carbon Dioxide Clouds That Scatter Infrared Radiation, Science, 278, 1273-1276.
  12. ^ a b Kass, D. M. and Y. L. Yung, 1995: Loss of atmosphere from Mars due to solar wind-induced sputtering, Science, 268, 697-699.
  13. ^ Carr, M and J. Head III. 2003. Oceans on Mars: An assessment of the observational evidence and possible fate. Journal of Geophysical Research: 108. 5042.
  14. ^ Abe, Yutaka, Atsushi Numaguti, Goro Komatsu, and Yoshihide Kobayashi, 2005: Four climate regimes on a land planet with wet surface: Effects of obliquity change and implications for ancient Mars, Icarus, Volume 178, Pages 27-39.
  15. ^ Fairen, A.G., D. Fernadez-Remolar, J. M. Dohm, V.R. Baker, and R. Amils, 2004: Inhibition of carbonate synthesis in acidic oceans on early Mars, Nature, 431, 423-426.
  16. ^ Greenwood, James P. and Ruth E. Blake, 2006: Evidence for an acidic ocean on Mars from phosphorus geochemistry of Martian soils and rocks, Geology, 34, 953-956.
  17. ^ a b Tang, Y., Q. Chen and Y. Huang, 2006: Early Mars may have had a methanol ocean, Icarus, 181, 88-92.
  18. ^ Krasnopolsky, Vladimir A., and Paul D. Feldman, 2001: Detection of Molecular Hydrogen in the Atmosphere of Mars, Science, 294, 1914-1917.
  19. ^ Janhunen, P., 2002: Are the northern plains of Mars a frozen ocean?, Journal of Geophysical Research, 107, 5103.
  20. ^ Kerr, Richard A., 2007: Is Mars Looking Drier and Drier for Longer and Longer?, Science, 317, 1673.
  21. ^ Carr, M. H. and J.W. Head, 2002: Oceans on Mars: An assessment of the observational evidence and possible fate, Journal of Geophysical Research, 108.
  22. ^ Leovy, C.B., 1999: Wind and climate on Mars, Science, 284, 1891a.

Further reading


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