Waves crashing to shore and spurting spray into the air, snowflakes falling on rocky beaches, and ice floes floating in the distance. According to Alberto Fairén, a visiting scientist at Cornell University from Madrid’s Center of Astrobiology, oceans on Mars would have been quite similar to the Great Lakes in winter rather than sunny California beaches.
Fairén and colleagues recently published a study in Scientific Reports detailing evidence of two ancient tsunamis, each the result of two meteorites hitting the planet eons ago.
The first tsunami occurred around 3.4 billion years ago, according to the researchers. The other, millions of years after.
“The tsunamis produced widespread littoral landforms, including run-up water-ice-rich and boulder lobes, which extended tens to hundreds of kilometers over gently sloping plains and boundary cratered highlands, as well as backwash channels where wave retreat occurred on highland-boundary surfaces,” wrote the researchers. “The ice-rich lobes formed in association with the younger tsunamis, showing that their emplacement took place following a transition into a colder global climatic regime that occurred after the older tsunamis event.”
The team focused its research on Mars’ northern plains, specifically the circum-Chryse and northwestern Arabia Terra regions. The study was based on geomorphic and thermal image mapping.
Timothy Parker, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Nature that the tsunami theory does align with how certain Martian features, like the lobes, formed. According to Fairén, when the second tsunami hit, the lobes froze to the land before they could wash back into the ocean, creating the landforms known today.
“Cold, salty waters may offer a refuge for life in extreme environments, as the salts could help keep the water liquid,” said Fairén in a statement. “If life existed on Mars, these icy tsunami lobes are very good candidates to search for biosignatures.”
Alexis Rodriguez, a study author, told Nature he’s searching for analogues on Earth to help him understand Mars better. One area of interest are the high-mountain lakes of Tibet.
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