Revisiting subglacial hydrology as an origin for Mars' valley networks

J. J. Buffo, L. Ojha, C. R. Meyer, K. L. Ferrier, M. C. Palucis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Although the nature of the early Martian climate is a matter of considerable debate, the presence of valley networks (VN) provides unambiguous evidence for the presence of liquid water on Mars' surface. A subaerial fluvial origin of VN is at odds with the expected phase instability of near-surface water in the cold, dry Late Noachian climate. Furthermore, many geomorphic properties of VN (e.g., deep U-shaped valleys with constant widths; longitudinal profile reversals) are inconsistent with surface water flow. Conversely, subglacial channels exhibit many of these characteristics and could have persisted beneath ice sheets even in a cold climate. Here we model basal melting beneath a Late Noachian Icy Highlands ice sheet and map subglacial hydrological flow paths to investigate the distribution and geomorphometry of subglacial channels. We show that subglacial processes produce enough melt water to carve Mars' VN; that predicted channel distribution is consistent with observations; and corroborate reversed channel gradient measurements of VN consistent with subglacial formation mechanisms. We suggest that, given a sufficient historical global water inventory and Late Noachian geothermal heat flux, subglacial hydrology may have played a significant role in the surface modification of Mars. Plain language summary. Thousands of valley networks on Mars appear to have been carved by flowing water, and exhibit branching characteristics akin to river networks on Earth. Their origins, however, remain enigmatic for two primary reasons. First, ancient Mars was potentially cold, dry, and unable to support liquid water on its surface. Second, many physical characteristics of the valleys are inconsistent with features formed by precipitation and runoff. On Earth, water flowing beneath ice sheets produces channels with similar characteristics to Mars' valley networks. Here we model the deposition and evolution of Martian ice sheets and show that melting at the ice sheet base is likely even under cold and dry surface conditions. The volume, regional distribution, and flow patterns of melt are consistent with the volume and dynamics needed to carve the observed valley networks. A subglacial origin for Mars' valley networks accounts for their formation in a cold, dry climate and produces valley characteristics that match observations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number117699
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - Sep 15 2022
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Mars
  • subglacial channels
  • subglacial hydrology
  • valley networks


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