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Martian volcano latest link to possible life.

The slopes of a giant Martian volcano, once covered in glacial ice, may have been home to one of the most recent habitable environments yet found on the Red Planet, according to research led by a geologist from Brown University, Providence, R.I.

Nearly twice as tall as Mt. Everest, Arsia Mons is the third tallest volcano on Mars and one of the largest mountains in the solar system. This analysis of the landforms surrounding it shows that eruptions along the volcano's northwest flank occurred at the same time that a glacier covered the region around 210,000,000 years ago.

The heat from those eruptions would have melted massive amounts of ice to create englacial lakes--bodies of water that form within glaciers like liquid bubbles in a half-frozen ice cube. The ice-covered lakes of Arsia Mons would have held hundreds of cubic kilometers of meltwater, according to calculations by Kat Scanlon, a graduate student who led the work--and, where there is water, there is the possibility of a habitable environment. "This is interesting because it's a way to get a lot of liquid water very recently on Mars," Scanlon surmises.

While 210,000,000 years ago might not sound terribly recent, the Arsia Mons site is much younger than the habitable environments turned up by Curiosity and other Mars rovers. Those sites are all likely older than 2,500,000,000 years.

Scientists have speculated since the 1970s that the northwest flank of Arsia Mons once may have been covered by glacial ice. That view got a big boost in 2003 when Brown geologist Jim Head and Boston University's David Marchant showed that terrain around Arsia Mons looks strikingly similar to landforms left by receding glaciers in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Parallel ridges toward the bottom of the mountain appear to be drop moraines--piles of rubble deposited at the edges of a receding glacier. An assemblage of small hills in the region also looks to be debris left behind by slowly flowing glacial ice.

The glacier idea got another boost with recently developed climate models for Mars that take into account changes in the planet's axis tilt. The models suggest that, during periods of increased tilt, ice now found at the poles would have migrated toward the equator. That would make Mars' giant mid-latitude mountains--Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Arsia Mons--prime locations for glaciation around 210,000,000 years ago.

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Title Annotation:The Red Planet
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2016
Previous Article:The reason for Mars' tumultuous past.
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