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Fields of small cratered cones on Mars are interpreted to have formed by rootless eruptions due to explosive interaction of lava with ground ice contained within the regolith beneath the flow. Melting and vaporization of the ice, and subsequent explosive expansion of the vapour, act to excavate the lava and construct a rootless cone around the explosion site. Similar features are found in Iceland, where flowing lavas encountered water-saturated substrates. The martian cones have basal diameters of c. 30–1000m and are located predominantly in the northern volcanic plains. High-resolution Mars Orbiter Camera images offer significant improvements over Viking data for interpretation of cone origins. A new model of the dynamics of cone formation indicates that very modest amounts of water ice are required to initiate and sustain the explosive interactions that produced the observed features. This is consistent with the likely low availability of water ice in the martian regolith. The scarcity of impact craters on many of the host lava flows indicates very young ages, suggesting that ground ice was present as recently as <10–100 Ma, and may persist today. Rootless cones therefore act as a spatial and temporal probe of the distribution of ground ice on Mars, which is of key significance in understanding the evolution of the martian climate. The location of water in liquid or solid form is of great importance to future robotic and human exploration strategies, and to the search for extraterrestrial life.

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