NASA has just revealed that there were once thousands of “super eruptions” from volcanoes on Mars. They were able to confirm this based on evidence found at a location called Arabia Terra in the northern part of the planet. These “super eruptions” occurred approximately 4 billion years ago and lasted for a period of about 500 million years.
These massive eruptions released a gigantic amount of molten rock and gas that ended up covering the surface of the planet for thousands of miles with a thick blanket of ash. To understand this better, the molten rock and gas that was spewed out of the volcano was equivalent to 400 million Olympic-size swimming pools. After the eruptions occurred, the volcanoes collapsed, creating a massive hole called a “caldera”.
Patrick Whelley, who is a geologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and who led the Arabia Terra analysis, went into further details, “Each one of these eruptions would have had a significant climate impact — maybe the released gas made the atmosphere thicker or blocked the Sun and made the atmosphere colder.”
At first, scientists thought that the depressions were the cause of asteroids impacting the planet; however, they found that they were not roundly shaped, causing them to wonder whether they were in fact ancient calderas. At that point, Whelley and his colleagues, with help from Alexandra Matiella Novak, who is a volcanologist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, searched for evidence of volcanic ash from Arabia Terra by using images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
They were able to find volcanic minerals that were turned into clay from water (these included montmorillonite, imogolite, and allophone) in canyon walls and craters located as far away as thousands of miles from the calderas. Furthermore, the layers of ash were exceptionally well preserved as if it had just happened.
This new research, combined with a previous study conducted in 2013 that originally found the calderas, allowed the experts to confirm that there were thousands of powerful eruptions. But this is only the beginning as Jacob Richardson, who is a geologist at NASA Goddard and who worked with both Whelley and Novak, stated, “People are going to read our paper and go, ‘How? How could Mars do that? How can such a tiny planet melt enough rock to power thousands of super eruptions in one location?’” “I hope these questions bring about a lot of other research.” This latest research was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters where it can be read in full.
Another picture of several craters in Arabia Terra can be seen here.