Volcano Flow of Martian Mud Similar to Toothpaste Boiling

atmospheric conditions cause mudflows with solid outsides, liquid insides

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Some Martian volcanoes ooze a clumpy flow of mud, complicating geographical studies, The Weather Channel reported. The unique atmosphere and environment on Mars lead to the mud flow, making it difficult for scientists to tell whether some of the planet’s features result from lava or not. The atmosphere of Mars is full of wonders.

3D rendering of Mars
Mars has a geographical feature of the tallest volcano known to be in the solar system, Olympus Mons, which is about two and a half times as tall as Mount Everest on Earth. Photo by joshimerbin / Shutterstock

According to The Weather Channel, scientists made a strange discovery while playing with some material sent back from Mars. “A group of scientists discovered that molten rock on Mars resembles boiling toothpaste under certain conditions,” the article said. “According to the team, the findings could affect how geographical studies are conducted on Mars. The study focuses on Martian volcanoes that emit mudflows instead of molten rock.”

Without a human on Mars to physically interact with some of the terrain, it may be difficult for scientists to determine whether some of the geological phenomena resulted from the release of mud or lava. This new discovery about molten rock is just one of the fascinating features of the red planet.

Olympus Mons

The tallest volcano known in the solar system is on Mars, called Olympus Mons. “The central caldera sits at 27 kilometers above the mean surface level; that’s three times the elevation of Mount Everest above sea level,” said Dr. Michael E. Wysession, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “The top sits 22 kilometers above the surrounding plains. The caldera complex alone is 85 kilometers long, 60 kilometers wide, and three kilometers deep. The whole volcano is surrounded by a steep escarpment that’s up to six kilometers tall; that’s a four-mile-high cliff.”

Dr. Wysession said that Mars also has an incredibly large hotspot of lava flow deep beneath its surface. This hotspot is called the Tharsis Rise and it contains Olympus Mons within it. All in all, the Tharsis Rise is nearly 30 million square kilometers, which is a quarter of Mars’s total surface.

The Icy Red Planet

According to Dr. Wysession, the icecaps on Mars are the most complex in the solar system, from ground that’s filled with ice—much like permafrost on Earth—to enormous glaciers that come down from mountains and deposit rock in various areas on the surface.

“The most unusual ice surface on Mars is actually the giant icecaps at the north and south poles, and these take a variety of different features,” Dr. Wysession said. “There’s a thick, permanent water icecap and a thin, variable, carbon dioxide icecap. Carbon dioxide ice you know as dry ice.”

He said that the carbon dioxide icecap is seasonal, moving from pole to pole. About a quarter of Mars’s atmosphere freezes out at the north pole during winter. It returns to the atmosphere in the spring, freezing at the south pole during the summer, then going back again.

“The solid-water icecaps are huge; [one] is larger than the size of Texas, and it has all of these repeating multiple layers that seem to be due to climate swings,” Dr. Wysession said. “Mars’s axis of rotation is tilted 25 degrees, very similar to Earth, and that gives it seasons, but over time that axis tilt changes from 0 degrees to more than 45 degrees, so there are huge, long-term changes in the strength of the seasons, and that causes this layering. But there are also these large canyons that are cut up into the ice glacier, and we have no understanding of why this occurs.”

Mars has a wealth of secrets lying on its cold, hard surface. From mud flow volcanoes to its dynamic icecaps, its features will offer exciting points of discovery for decades to come.

Dr. Wysession is Associate Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences

Dr. Michael E. Wysession contributed to this article. Dr. Wysession is the Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Wysession earned his Sc.B. in Geophysics from Brown University and his Ph.D. from Northwestern University.