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  • Writer's pictureM Akbar Hussain

An Assessment of the Equatorial Ice Deposits on Mars

Updated: Feb 1

This is a follow-up of the recent discovery of huge subsurface ice deposits at the Martian equator, several kilometers thick. This is great news as it proves subsurface ice is pretty much spread throughout the Martian surface starting anywhere from a few centimeters beneath the surface near poles, to several hundred meters from surface near the equator. The fact is, there is a lot of water on Mars, and it is being proven to be more than previously thought with every closer inspection of the Martian surface.

(Recent discovery of huge deposits of subsurface ice on Mars in and around the Medusae Fossae region. Credit ESA)

One of the Mareekh Dynamics' observations has been in relation to the dark slope streaks on Mars which are conventionally believed to be dust avalanches. We hold a different opinion on it and believe these to be temporary liquid water activity on Mars in the form of fine mud that flows down the slopes briefly on Martian surface and dries out, forming these dark streaks. We find our proposed phenomenon of dark slope streaks on Mars as analogous to the mud flow streaks in the mud volcano fields of Pakistan (Mud volcanism on Mars, Hussain et al, 20th Australian Space Research Conference 2022). Our reasoning for proposing dark slope streaks on Mars goes beyond the stark visual similarities between the streaks on Mars and in the mud volcano fields of Pakistan, and is based on the fact that both regions have subsurface water fairly close to the surface (albeit in the form of water-ice on Mars, and brine in the mud volcano fields), and a geothermal activity beneath it. Mars does not have active volcanoes but has geothermal activity deep under its surface. On Earth, the geothermal heat that builds up over time has the luxury of venting out through active volcanoes and between continental plates causing plate tectonic movements. Mars does not have plate movements and the volcanoes are all dead or extinct. Though weak, Mars does have geothermal activity under its crust and builds up slowly. We believe it may be causing the subsurface ice to melt in places which churns and mixes with Martian regolith and breaks out in small vents few centimeters wide and flow down the slope as dark streaks before drying out. Our observations in the mud volcano regions in Pakistan is that the mud flows are composed of brine mixed with very fine clay as smooth as talc, and flow with almost no resistance to several hundred meters. If the streaks are brine mudflows of similar consistency, these may flow to a considerable distance before drying out in very thin Martian atmosphere. Low temperature on Mars might come in handy and slow down its evaporation in the thin atmosphere.

(HiRISE image of the region of Medusae Fossae showing huge concentration of dark slope streaks. We believe these streaks are formed by recent mudflows.)

(HiRISE image of a region of Medusae Fossae)

(HiRISE image of the region of northwest of Medusae Fossae showing a concentration of dark slope streaks.)

(Slope streaks in Mangala Valles)

(A pancake shaped mound 4.5km in diameter in a region north or Mangala Valles. This is in the region of the thickest subsurface ice-deposit on Mars. This mound has dark slope streaks all along its peripheral slopes.)

(The same pancake shaped mound in HiRISE image. Note the dark slope streaks along its periphery, best visible along its north-eastern slopes but pretty much visible along the entire periphery.)

Here it gets interesting. The thick equatorial ice deposits are found in and around the Medusae Fossae region with the greatest concentration right at the equator north of Mangala Valles region. We have known about this region for its very high concentration of dark streaks which in high resolution HiRISE and other imagery, are literally over almost every single slope right next to each other. There are slope streaks on Mars in most of its northern hemisphere, but not in this concentration. This region is on average 2000-3500m below the Martian mean altitude. And now there is a huge water-ice deposit underneath. Coincidence? Let's find out.

The southern hemisphere of Mars mostly consists of highlands, with average altitude of 3000-4000m above Martian mean. Detailed inspection of HiRISE images of Mars reveals very few to none of these enigmatic slope streaks in these highlands. If the slope streaks are universally a dry dust avalanche phenomenon, why are there very few streaks in the high altitude southern region of Mars? One might argue that elevation and thinning of the atmosphere may play a role in the lack of slope streaks in the high altitude regions of Mars. This takes us to the flanks of the largest volcano in the Solar System, the mighty Olympus Mons. Here we find large slope streaks nearly all along its flank flowing down the cliffs in the high resolution imagery, especially over its southern flank, present at altitudes of 3000-4000m above Martian mean altitude. Why is that so? Could it be because Olympus Mons is a dead volcano but may still have geothermal activity deep in its core, causing the melting of subsurface ice and welling it up, which is breaking out of its slopes as mudflows? We unapologetically claimed in our article that Olympus Mons and other volcanoes in the Tharsis group could be wholly or partially mud volcanoes (either dead basaltic volcanoes now active as mud volcanoes, or had always been mud volcanoes for billions of years and never died, and are still active). This conclusion could be preposterous and a bit of a stretch, but who knows? Every new evidence of ice beneath the Martian surface brings us closer to this conclusion ever so slightly.

(Huge slope streaks over the southern flanks of Olympus Mons at an altitude of 3500m above Martian mean altitude.)

(Close-up of the Olympus Mons slope streaks. It looks like a very intermittently dynamic wet environment on Mars.)

(Mud volcanoes in Balochistan province of Pakistan can reach several hundred meters in elevation and can be several kilometers across. Pictures here is the Mount Mehdi rising over 400m above the surrounding plains and is several kilometers across. It is a part of an enormous massif of mudvolcanoes that form part of the mud volcano fields of Hingol, Lasbela, Awaran and Makran districts)

(Changing morphology of mud flow streaks of the Chandragup mud volcano)

One of the implications of finding substantial subsurface ice deposits near the Martian equator is that it expands our scope of imagining establishment of human settlements on Mars at or near the equator closer to the geologically interesting regions, not only in regards to access to water for human consumption but also for the operation of our patented novel hybrid power generation concept for Mars, the Mareekh Process, which will utilize the subsurface ice to generate enormous amount of power utilizing unique thermodynamic attributes of the Martian atmosphere.

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