Yellowstone-Like Supervolcanoes on Mars Suggest Huge Explosions

Early Mars was an explosive, fiery place, much like early Earth, with supervolcanoes that could eject at least 240 cubic miles (1,000 cubic kilometers) of molten rock.

Drawing on images and data from the Mars Express and Global Surveyor spacecrafts, scientists identified irregular craters in an upland region in northern Mars, called Arabia Terra, that were formed through massive explosions and subsequent collapses. Those structures are remnants of supervolcanoes, much like the one at Yellowstone National Park which has erupted multiple times in the last 18 million years, according to a paper in the journal Nature.

Supervolcano explosions on Mars may explain the fine-grained deposits discovered on the planet. Scientists had previously suggested these materials might have come from volcanic eruptions, though no volcanoes had been recognized in the region until now. Knowing the nature of early, widespread volcanic activity will also aid researchers in determining if Mars was once habitable, the scientists wrote.

“Volcanism is the thread binding nearly every aspect of Mars’ geologic evolution,” Joseph Michalski, the study author and a Mars researcher at the National History Museum in London and the Planetary Institute in Tucson, Arizona, said in a statement. “The better we understand volcanism on Mars, the better we can understand the planet.”

On Earth, all supervolcano eruptions occurred tens of thousands to millions of years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Shield Volcanoes

Mars is already known to have shield volcanoes, which are much younger volcanoes and similar to those in Hawaii. Olympus Mons is the largest active volcano on Mars, and is 100 times larger than Mauna Loa, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Using the size of the craters’ depressions as a guide to how much rock was expelled, the average minimum eruptions spewed 1,100 to 1,700 cubic miles (4,600 to 7,200 cubic kilometers) of debris.

Yellowstone’s most-recent eruption, 640,000 years ago, was a thousand times the size of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington state. Ash from its giant eruptions occurring between 2.1 million and 640,0000 years ago is spread from California to Iowa, and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in San Francisco at elopatto@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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