Tag Archives: Olympus Mons

A dark dust avalanche on Mars

No dust avalanche

After dust avalanche

Cool image time! The two images to the right, both cropped to post here, were taken six years apart by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of the western lava slopes of the giant volcano Olympus Mons. They show the appearance of a dark dust avalanche during the interim. As noted by members of the MRO science team.

Dust avalanches create slope streaks that expose darker materials usually hidden below a lighter-toned layer. Cascading fine-grained material easily diverts around boulders or alters direction when encountering a change in slope. The dark steak … is approximately 1 kilometer in length that we didn’t see in a previous image. Past avalanche sites are still visible and fading slowly as dust settles out of the atmosphere and is deposited on the dark streaks over time.

We also see boulders and their shadows that are a meter or greater in size. Movement of any of these boulders down the slope could trigger future avalanches.

The appearance of these Martian dark streaks on slopes is actually not uncommon. As more pictures are taken of Mars scientists are beginning to accumulate a large number all across the Martian surface.

What I find fascinating is the wet look of these dark streaks. Below is a close-up of the new avalanche, near its head.
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The epic lava flows of Olympus Mons

Lava flows off of Olympus Mons

The eruption of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii has garnered a lot of deserved press coverage, having added at least a 200 acres of new land and destroyed at least 700 homes. Similarly, the recent violent eruption of a volcano in Guatemala, killing 100 people in its wake, has also gotten much deserved news coverage.

The magnitude of both however would pale in comparison to the stupendous eruption that occurred several hundred million years ago at the solar system’s largest volcano, Olympus Mons on Mars. While Kilauea is about 100 miles across, Olympus Mons is about 370 miles wide, and is so large that because of the curvature of Mar’s surface it is literally impossible for a viewer on the ground to actually see the volcano, in its entirety.

Both volcanoes are shield volcanoes, however, which means the lava flows don’t necessarily come from the caldera, but often from vents on the volcano’s slopes. Eruptions might be violent, but they generally do not involve the powerful explosive force of the sudden eruption, as seen in Guatemala and at Mount St. Helens in 1980 in the U.S. Instead, the lava seeps out steadily and continuously, an unstoppable flow that steadily overwhelms the surrounding terrain.

Olympus Mons

The flows that created Olympus Mons however were an epic event probably lasting millions of years, which brings us to this post. In the June release of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter high resolution images, I found the image above, cropped and reduced in resolution to post here. It shows lava flowing down off one of the many escarpments on the slopes of Olympus Mons. This is not at the edge of the volcano’s shield, but just inside it. The map at the right, created using the archive of MRO’s high resolution camera, indicates the location of this flow, shown by the left light blue rectangle on the southeast slope of the volcano’s shield. The red rectangles show all the other images MRO has taken of Olympus Mons.

The scale of the MRO image above gives an indication of how big that eruption at Olympus Mons was.
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Massive flow on Mars

Massive flow on Mars

Cool image time! The image on the right, cropped to post here, comes from a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image that shows a massive relatively recent and dark slope streak that emanates out from a single point on the surface. (Note that the release at this link rotates the image so that north points down. I have rotated back so that north points up.)

Streaks form on slopes when dust cascades downhill. The dark streak is an area of less dust compared to the brighter and reddish surroundings. What triggers these avalanches is not known, but might be related to sudden warming of the surface.

These streaks are often diverted by the terrain they flow down. This one has split into many smaller streaks where it encountered minor obstacles. These streaks fade away over decades as more dust slowly settles out of the Martian sky.

Point of origin for flow

Location of flow, west of Olympus Mons

The MRO release focuses on the fingerlike breakup of the flow as it descends into sand-dune filled plain. What is more interesting to me is the terrain where this flow originated. A close-up of that area from the full image, shown on the right, reveals a feature that could be a wash running in line with the flow’s origin, and leading uphill to a dark feature that is a likely a cliff face. (The light in this image is coming from the southeast.)

This location, at 15.2N latitude, 214.9E longitude and shown by the small cross in the image on the right and captured from this page, is west of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano on Mars. This suggests to me that the originating feature might be an outlet from a lava tube, from which water suddenly seeped out to produce this massive slope streak. A look at the mesa from which this flow came, cropped from the full image and posted below the fold, shows numerous similar slope streaks of varying ages flowing out of this mesa, with some very faint because they occurred farther in the past. Some are even within the bowl at the top of the mesa.

Whether these come from lava tubes is definitely unclear, and I suspect I will be told by geologists not likely. The seeps however do suggest strongly that this mesa might be a very good location for future colonists to look for underground water ice. Since clouds form on the western slopes of Arsia Mons, the southernmost of the three giant volcanoes to the east of Olympus Mons, and that past glacial activity has been documented there, I wonder if some of these same conditions might also exist here, on the nearby terrain west of Olympus Mons.
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