30 Sep 2015

Irish and UK researchers find new evidence of significant water flow on The Red Planet

Oblique view of of Mars showing remnant glacier and eskers (NASA

Oblique view of of Mars showing remnant glacier and eskers (NASA

Researchers at University College Dublin (UCD) and The Open University (OU) have found new evidence that liquid water flowed beneath a glacier on Mars, suggesting that Mars had glaciers more like those on Earth than currently thought. This new finding provides further evidence to fuel the ongoing debate concerning Mars’ habitability and the burning question of whether other planets can sustain life.

Dr Colman Gallagher (UCD School of Geography and UCD Earth Institute) and OU planetary science researcher Dr Matthew Balme, report that they have found direct evidence of melting and significant flows of liquid water beneath a glacier on Mars.

Their research examined a landform known as an ‘esker’, emerging from a degraded glacier in the Phlegra Montes region of Mars. Eskers are ridges of sediment similar to a dried-out river bed, which form only by sustained flows of liquid water underneath a glacier. Eskers are found only in ‘wet-based’ glacial systems – but glaciers on Mars have generally been thought to be ‘dry-based’ with no melt water. “Finding an esker on Mars means that significant quantities of liquid water flowed beneath this glacier, and that liquid water can persist in the near-surface environment, despite Mars being generally too cold to permit liquid water” said Dr Gallagher.

Despite a number of similarities between the climate of Mars and that on Earth, the presence of liquid water has remained one of the key differences between the two planets and an important factor in determining whether the planet could sustain life.

Indirect evidence for eskers on Mars has been reported before, but this research offers the first observation of eskers directly linked to a glacier. “Eskers have been reported on Mars before,” said Dr Balme, “but they are normally stranded in the landscape with little to associate them with a glacial system. This is the first identification of an esker system on Mars that is still physically associated with its parent glacier.” He added “Eskers on Mars are important as they indicate melt of glacial ice – and finding another type of environment where liquid water can occur is important in the whole ‘life on Mars’ question, as it provides yet more evidence for habitability in the recent past.”

The paper ‘Eskers in a complete, wet-based glacial system in the Phlegra Montes region, Mars’ has been published today in the academic journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.


Notes to the editor

1. To read the full paper ‘Eskers in a complete, wet-based glacial system in the Phlegra Montes region, Mars’ please visit the Earth and Planetary Science Letters website:,Ig40ctJ

2. Caption for accompanying image: Oblique view of Phlegra Montes region of Mars showing remnant glacier and eskers. Image and topography data credit: NASA.

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