Scientists Suspect Rivers of Lava Flow Beneath the Surface of Mars

by Caitlin Berard
(Photo by dottedhippo via Getty Images)

With its rocky, canyon-littered surface, dry lake beds, and countless extinct volcanoes, scientists long considered Mars a geologically dead planet. Though the Martian surface remained fascinating to research, it was essentially a barren wasteland.

Now, however, what we thought we knew about Earth’s neighboring planet is beginning to change. Thanks to the seismometer on NASA‘s InSight lander, scientists have now discovered that Mars could be very much alive beneath the surface.

It’s easy to imagine a cavernous world beneath the Martian surface, filled with all manner of alien creatures and fantastical plant life. The reality, however, is a little less Avatar and a little more Dante’s Peak.

Rather than flora and fauna, scientists believe rivers of molten lava flow deep below the surface. If confirmed, this discovery could shift our understanding of Mars’ history completely.

The theory that volcanic activity hasn’t been present on the red planet in at least four billion years, for example, would be proven incorrect. In addition, scientists would have to reconsider the timeline of the planet’s formation, history of microbial life, and the loss of its atmosphere.

Scientists Use Quakes on Mars to Find Lava Hotspot

Since landing on Mars in 2018, InSight has detected more than 1,000 marsquakes, the most powerful of which come from a region full of rifts called Cerberus Fossae. And it was here that they found the unbelievable lava hotspot.

“We found something that was really not consistent with anything we believed was true,” Anna Mittelholz, one of the scientists behind the discovery, explained to Insider.

InSight detects seismic waves, collects the data, and sends it on to researchers for analysis. In a recent paper published in Nature Astronomy, scientists revealed that they discovered certain waves were moving much slower than they should. “The only answer that seemed to make sense is that the region has to be hot,” Mittelholz said.

Not just hot, either. Molten hot. This indicated the presence of lava below the surface of Mars’ Cerberus Fossae, the movement of which likely creates the enormous marsquakes. The rumblings, however, originate anywhere from 14 to 50 kilometers beneath the surface, making it difficult to know for sure.

“It is possible that what we are seeing are the last remnants of this once active volcanic region or that the magma is right now moving eastward to the next location of eruption,” study leader Simon Stähler said in a press release.

“We are pretty confident that there is some volcanic activity going on down there,” Mittelholz added. “It’s very hard to explain the data in any other way. So locally, I would say it’s pretty definitive. I think the bigger question is: What would we expect globally?”