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This article is from
Journal of Creation 22(2):10–11, August 2008

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Mars’ catastrophic geology


Image NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems The planet Mars, like Earth, has clouds in its atmosphere and a deposit of ice at its north pole. But unlike Earth, Mars has no liquid water on its surface. The rustlike color of Mars comes from the large amount of iron in the planet’s soil.

New information about Mars is highlighting the catastrophic nature of its past. Planetary geologists are finding a variety of indications of very rapid processes in Mars history. These processes often have some parallel on Earth but because Mars is much colder and has a very different atmosphere there are differences in the effects even for well known Earth-like processes.

Martian processes include flooding, volcanism, glacial movement, sedimentary processes and even geysers. NASA and the European Space Agency have gathered valuable data on Mars geology from recent missions that will give new insights into Mars history. How should young-age creationists understand this new information?

The Northern part of Mars is called the Northern Lowlands because it averages about 4–5 km lower in elevation than the Southern half of the planet. The Southern Highlands are very densely cratered but fewer craters are seen on the surface in the Northern Lowlands. On the other hand, the Northern Lowlands has many buried craters. In 2006, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission (also known as MARSIS) found evidence of what are apparently impact structures buried under the surface ranging from 130 to 470 km in diameter.1 This was using a special instrument known as a sounding radar. Mars is well known for many channels on its surface as well. Most of the channels formed as a result of subsidence phenomena, but there are often dendritic drainage patterns in or around them, indicating water drained into them or eroded in them after their formation.

Mars’ atmosphere is quite thin and if there were liquid water on the surface of Mars today it would quickly evaporate and/or freeze. Water and carbon dioxide ice exist on both the poles of Mars and water ice under the surface. Recently the Mars Odyssey spacecraft mapped patches of water ice just below the surface.2 Being a planet with a relatively low density (3.9 g/cm3 compared to 5.5 for Earth), Mars has the potential for having a lot of volatile material in its interior, such as water and carbon dioxide.

Evidence seems to have been discovered recently of water eruptions3 sometime in Mars’ past from two channels on Mars known as Mangala Fossa and Cerberus Fossa, described as graben fractures. Mangala Fossa seems to have had hot water carrying mud with it. Scientists have estimated 107 –108 m3/s for the water volume flux from Mangala Fossa from a fracture about 200 km long. Cerberus Fossa (fracture about 35 km long) seems to have been a carbonated water geyser with a volume flux of about 2 × 106 m3/s. Both of these eruptions propelled material several kilometres laterally across the surface. The nature of the channels and ridges produced by these eruptions seem to rule out volcanic flows. Cerberus Fossa is believed to have sent hailstones several kilometres. The force of these eruptions requires that the water come from aquifers as deep as 3–4 km below the surface.

These water eruptions are just one example of a variety of large-scale rapid catastrophic events that have shaped the surface of Mars in its past. There are also massive volcanoes and evidence of glaciation. A major ongoing mystery is how the Martian atmosphere could support so much liquid water in the past, as is indicated by all the evidence of water on the surface. There are sedimentary deposits of sulfate and clorite compounds (evaporites), as well as hematite. A mineral similar to granite was also found in limited quantities.4 This suggests a variety of processes that may involve water coming up from below the surface.

There is much yet to be thoroughly researched and examined on Mars from a young-age creation perspective. For example, was Mars created with a thicker atmosphere than present that was partially lost as a result of large impacts? It is very possible for the explosion of a large impact to blast gases away at greater than escape velocity, especially since Mars gravity is about 38% of Earth’s. An alternative might be powerful outgassing from the interior after creation (possibly driven by accelerated radioactive decay) that increased the density of the atmosphere at least temporarily. Then heating from the interior could have triggered a massive melting of glaciers and subsurface ice, causing much erosion of the surface from liquid water that flowed for some period of time. There’s obviously been massive lava flows on Mars as well. But, something has caused a melting or evaporation of water under the surface that led to water flows creating many surface channels. There may have also been large regions once glaciated on Mars that have been resurfaced by basalt and dust.

Whatever happened in Mars’ past, it was dramatic and catastrophic. Though this is all tentative at this point, Martian geology will generally demand rapid catastrophic processes and thus will fit a young-age viewpoint nicely.

Recommended Resources


  1. Watters, T.R., Leuschen, C.J., Plaut, J.J., Picardi, G., Safaeinili, A., Clifford, S.M., Farrell, W.M., Ivanov, A.B., Phillips, R.J. and Stofan, E.R., MARSIS radar sounder evidence of buried basins in the northern lowlands of Mars, Nature 444:905–908, December 14, 2006. Also available as a press release at <mars.jpl.nasa.gov/express/newsroom/pressreleases/20061213a.html>. Return to text.
  2. Sharp views show ground ice on Mars is patchy and variable, 3 May 2007, <themis.asu.edu/news-groundice>. Return to text.
  3. Shiga, D., Fizzy water powered ‘super’ geysers on ancient Mars, New Scientist News, 17 March 2008, <space.newscientist.com/channel/solar-system/dn13480-fizzy-water-powered-super-geysers-on-ancient-mars.html>. Return to text.
  4. Bandfield, J.L., Hamilton, V.E., Christensen, P.R. and McSween Jr, H.Y., Identification of quartzofeldspathic materials on Mars, J. Geophys. Res. 109:E10009, 2004. Or, see, Granite-like rocks discovered, <themis.asu.edu/discoveries-granitepeaks>. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Roger d.
“Cerberus Fossa is believed to have sent hailstones several kilometres.”
I don’t understand how the eruption could have sent hailstones, based on the description of the Mangala Fossa having consisted of hot water carrying mud, I would have thought the Cerberus Fossa would have also been hot, or is it an ice geyser?
Wayne Spencer
Cerberus Fossa was said to be carbonated water, not muddy water. Mangala Fossa was said to have been muddy water. However, it is compared to the Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone, only much more powerful. Hot water erupting like Old Faithful could carry some mud with it but the mud is not vaporized like the water so it separates out and doesn’t travel so far. The mud might come down as dust, I would guess. It would indeed be very hot when it erupts but remember the temperature on Mars varies at the surface from around-120 C to maybe 35 C in summer and it gets colder with altitude. There are also significant seasonal temperature changes on Mars. If water is being propelled a long distance it may have time for the water to freeze and come down as snow or hail. It’s a kind of unusual type of erosion that they found on the surface so more research may lead to more ideas.

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