A Martian Giant’s Causeway

ResearchBlogging.orgThe HiRISE camera just keeps snapping cool things, and in the latest issue of Geology, Milazzo et al. have spotted something particularly cool in this image of the rim of this crater. It seem this particular impact punched right through a large basalt lava flow, and tilted the exposed edges skywards, allowing us to see: columnar basalts!

HiRISE pictures of columnar basalts on Mars


Below I’ve sketched in some interpretation of the features in these images, which show multiple layers of columnar basalt separated by massive (featureless) layers. In at least one place (in the middle figure), you can see columns which are much more irregularly spaced and oriented.

HiRISE pictures of columnar basalts on Mars (interpreted)

These are all features you can see within large basalt flows on Earth: take, for example, the Isle of Staffa, off the west coast of Scotland, which formed as part of the same volcanic episode responsible for the Giant’s Causeway. The cliffs of this island are basically a section through a single basaltic lava flow, with lovely regular columns at the base and more massive basalt, with irregular fanning columns seen in places, at the top.

Columnar basalts on the Isle of Staffa

Columnar basalts on the Isle of Staffa

The columns in a columnar basalt are basically joints; cracks that formed during cooling and shrinkage of the lava. Their regular spacing is due to the cooling rate being fairly constant throughout the entire flow. The more irregular, radiating columns found close to the top of a flow are thought to record interaction with water percolating through cracks in the surface and causing localised cooling. By analogy, Milazzo et al. argue that the flows they see on Mars were also water-cooled. Of course, the age of these lavas is presently unknown, so I’m not sure how signficant this is in terms of charting the history of water on the the Martian surface; but it shows that looking at volcanic features, as well as sedimentary and mineralogical ones, might be useful in working out that story.
M.P. Milazzo, L.P. Keszthelyi, W.L. Jaeger, M. Rosiek, S. Mattson, C. Verba, R.A. Beyer, P.E. Geissler, A.S. McEwen (2009). Discovery of columnar jointing on Mars Geology, 37 (2), 171-174 DOI: 10.1130/G25187A.1

Categories: geology, paper reviews, planets, volcanoes
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Comments (3)

  1. Matt says:

    These are all one flow? The contrast between the two types is striking – would there be several pulses involved, with different cooling regimes and water availability for each?

  2. Chris Rowan says:

    It’s clear in Fig C that there is more than one flow – it’s just that, by analogy with the flows we see on Earth, each couplet of columnar and more massive basalt form a single unit.

  3. Sean Duke says:

    Hi Chris,
    I’m editor with Science Spin, an Irish popular science magazine at http://www.sciencespin.com I’m interested in your comparison with Giant’s Causeway, could you email me an image – the best one – and a caption that we could publish?
    Thanks
    Sean