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The surface of Mars: An unusual laboratory that preserves a record of catastrophic and unusual events

By
Mary G Chapman
Mary G Chapman
Astrogeology Team, U.S. Geological Survey, 2255 N. Gemini Drive, Flagstaff, Arizona 86001, USA
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Published:
April 01, 2009

Catastrophic and unusual events on Earth such as bolide impacts, megafloods, supereruptions, flood volcanism, and subice volcanism may have devastating effects when they occur. Although these processes have unique characteristics and form distinctive features and deposits, we have difficulties identifying them and measuring the magnitude of their effects. Our difficulties with interpreting these processes and identifying their consequences are understandable considering their infrequency on Earth, combined with the low preservation potential of their deposits in the terrestrial rock record. Although we know these events do happen, they are infrequent enough that the deposits are poorly preserved on the geologically active face of the Earth, where erosion, volcanism, and tectonism constantly change the surface. Unlike the Earth, on Mars catastrophic and unusual features are well preserved because of the slow modification of the surface. Significant precipitation has not occurred on Mars for billions of years and there appears to be no discrete crustal plates to have undergone subduction and destruction. Therefore the ancient surface of Mars preserves geologic features and deposits that result from these extraordinary events. Also, unlike the other planets, Mars is the most similar to our own, having an atmosphere, surface ice, volcanism, and evidence of onceflowing water. So although our understanding of precursors, processes, and possible biological effects of catastrophic and unusual processes is limited on Earth, some of these mysteries may be better understood through investigating the surface of Mars.

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