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Clients in the News – Penn State finds unusual greenhouse gases may have raised ancient Martian temperature

Split panel comparing (a) a section of Arizona’s Grand Canyon against (b) a section of Mars’ Nanedi Valles. Nanedi Valles is located in the Lunae Palus quadrangle (4.9oN, 49oW). The northern part of the Nanedi Valles image shows a river had once cut through it, similar to the one flowing through the Grand Canyon. Although this section of Nanedi Valles is nearly 2.5 km in width, other portions (not shown) are at least twice as wide. Slight morphologic differences between the two canyons are attributable to the great age differences between the regions and the correspondingly higher degree of erosion on Mars. Image: Kasting Lab, Penn State

Much like the Grand Canyon, Nanedi Valles snakes across the Martian surface suggesting that liquid water once crossed the landscape, according to a team of researchers who believe that molecular hydrogen made it warm enough for water to flow.

The presence of molecular hydrogen, in addition to carbon dioxide and water, could have created a greenhouse effect on Mars 3.8 billion years ago that pushed temperatures high enough to allow for liquid water, the researchers state in the current issue of Nature Geoscience.

The team includes Ramses M. Ramirez, a doctoral student working with James Kasting, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, Penn State.

Previous efforts to produce temperatures warm enough to allow for liquid water used climate models that include only carbon dioxide and water and were unsuccessful. The researchers used a model to show that an atmosphere with sufficient carbon dioxide, water and hydrogen could have made the surface temperatures of Mars warm to above freezing. Those above-freezing temperatures would allow liquid water to flow across the Martian surface over 3.8 billion years ago and form the ancient valley networks, such as Nanedi Valles, much the way sections of the Grand Canyon snake across the western United States today.

“This is exciting because explaining how early Mars could have been warm and wet enough to form the ancient valleys had scientists scratching their heads for the past 30 years,” said Ramirez. “We think we may have a credible solution to this great mystery.”

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