NASA Scientists Confirm That Massive Ancient Volcanoes Erupted on Mars

by Lauren Boisvert

If you thought Mount Vesuvius was bad, wait until you hear about the volcanoes on Mars. According to NASA, there’s evidence of massive volcanoes erupting in the Arabia Terra quadrant of Mars over 4 billion years ago. NASA classifies them as “super eruptions,” or “supervolcanoes,” which are volcanoes that reach the highest value of the Volcanic Explosivity Index and are some of the most violent eruptions known to us.

“Each one of these eruptions would have had a significant climate impact,” said Patrick Whelley, geologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Whelley says these super eruptions could have drastically changed Mars’ climate, from blocking the sun to make it colder, to throwing up thick gases and ash and choking up the atmosphere.

So what led researchers to come to the conclusion that there were supervolcanoes on Mars?

Looking for Calderas

After eruption, according to NASA, supervolcanoes collapse into craters called calderas. Researchers found 7 calderas on Mars that initially sparked the idea that there were supervolcanoes on Mars at one point. To infer that these basins were calderas, researchers noticed that they weren’t perfectly round, and that they had deep floors and shelves of rock in the sides, which are signs of collapse.

Volcanologist Alexandra Matiella Novak paired up with Patrick Whelley and his team to study the ash particles around the calderas. By studying the ash, the team noticed that it thinned out the farther downwind from the calderas it went. That means, high winds blowing ash and gases away from the calderas; which means, volcanoes.

The team found volcanic minerals thousands of miles from the calderas, turned to clay by water. A team of researchers who studied the calderas in 2013 calculated how much material would have been thrown by the volcanoes; this research allowed Whelley and this team to determine the amount of eruptions needed to throw that kind of volume of material. According to the team, the eruptions number in the thousands.

So far, there is only evidence in the Arabia Terra region of Northern Mars of explosive volcanoes; compare that to the biggest volcano in the solar system, Mars’ Olympic Mons. This volcano is considered a shield volcano; according to NASA, it doesn’t quite explode, but drains lava slowly over the sides of the volcano.

“People are going to read our paper and go, ‘How? How could Mars do that? How can such a tiny planet melt enough rock to power thousands of super eruptions in one location?’” said Jacob Richardson, NASA Goddard researcher. According to the research, Mars truly is the little planet that could.

NASA: Hunting for Alien Life?

Speaking of Mars, NASA’s Perseverance Rover picked up its first rock sample early in September. Perseverance is exploring Mars’ Jezero crater, and is using the most advanced NASA technology to do it.

The rover is in constant contact with Earth, taking photos and sending them back to NASA. The initial sample Perseverance drilled for was the size of a “briefcase;” researchers are hoping the samples shed even more light on Mars’ early days. “There’s a lot of Jezero crater left to explore,” noted project scientist Ken Farley, “We will continue our journey in the months and years ahead.”

Rock samples are great and do so much for planet research, but here’s hoping we get to hear the rover sing itself happy birthday like the other ones do; simultaneously the cutest and saddest aspect of the NASA rovers.