Billions of years ago, Mars’ surface was completely different

3 Mar 2016

An illustration of how Mars might have looked 4bn years ago. Image via ESO/M. Kornmesser

New research has revealed that, billions of years ago, so much lava was spewed by Martian volcanoes that the planet’s surface was radically different to what we see today.

While the geological surface of Mars might look like a desolate landscape where not much happens bar a few Earthly rovers slowly roaming around on the hunt for rocks, its history is one of great turmoil and powerful volcanoes.

Perhaps the most powerful and best known of the planet’s volcanoes is Olympus Mons, the youngest volcano on Mars and the largest known in the entire solar system, which reaches heights of 22km into the Martian atmosphere.

Future Human

Yet, elsewhere on the planet, a new research paper suggests, a region is dotted with volcanoes that spewed so much lava 3.5bn years ago that the aftermath completely changed the surface of the planet forever.

According to The Guardian, the region know known as the Tharis dome, which measures 5,000 sq km wide with a thickness of 12km, is the end-result of this enormous lava flow.


An area of the Tharsis region flooded by ancient magma. Image via ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

How would an event like this affect Earth?

Due to the sheer amount of lava – approximately 1bn tonnes – on a planet half the diameter of Earth, the planet’s own layers could not take the strain, resulting in both its mantle and crust being swivelled out, changing the planet’s surface.

Lasting for hundreds of millions of years, not only did it change the surrounding surface drastically, but it also led to the planet’s north and south poles moving from their original locations.

Giving us a comparison, lead researcher of the study, Sylvain Bouley, said: “If a similar shift happened on Earth, Paris would be in the polar circle. We’d see northern lights in France, and wine grapes would be grown in Sudan.”

The findings also reveal a possible answer to the mystery as to why last year’s discovery of vast ice reservoirs underneath the surface were not found closer to the poles.

There remains many unanswered question however, Bouley said: “Did the tilt cause the magnetic fields to shut down? Did it contribute to the disappearance of Mars’ atmosphere, or cause the rivers to stop flowing? These are things we don’t know yet.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic