Martian Landslides

HiRISE image showing the aftermath of landslides on Mars

Sometimes there are advantages to studying planetary physics beyond Earth. Mars does not have plate tectonics, vegetation, or the level of erosion we do, allowing geological features like those left behind by landslides to persist undisturbed for millions of years. And, thanks to a suite of orbiters, we’ve mapped most of Mars at a resolution better than many parts of our own planet. All together, this gives researchers a treasure trove of geological data from our nearest neighbor.

One peculiar feature of many landslides is their long runout. Even over relatively flat ground, some landslides cover extreme distances from their point of origin. On Earth, we often see this behavior near glaciers, so scientists theorized that the presence of ice was somehow necessary for the landslide to cover such a long distance. But previous laboratory experiments with dry, ice-free grains showed the same behavior: long runouts marked with ridges running parallel to the flow. The mechanism behind the ridges is still somewhat unclear, but it seems to be connected to fluid dynamical instabilities that form between fast-flowing particles of differing density. But such results have been confined to lab-scale experiments and numerical simulations.

A new report, however, shows that landslides on Mars share the same characteristic spacing and thickness between their ridges. This evidence suggests that the same ice-free mechanism could account for the long run-out of landslides on Mars and other planets. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona; research credit: G. Magnarini et al.; via The Conversation; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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