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Low surface gravitational acceleration of Mars results in a thick and weak lithosphere: implications for topography, volcanism, and hydrology

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Michael J. Heap, Paul K. Byrne, Sami Mikhail

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Surface gravitational acceleration (surface gravity) on Mars, the second-smallest planet in the Solar System, is much lower than that on Earth. A direct consequence of this low surface gravity is that lithostatic pressure is lower on Mars than on Earth at any given depth. Collated published data from deformation experiments on basalts suggest that, throughout its geological history (and thus thermal evolution), the Martian brittle lithosphere was much thicker but weaker than that of present-day Earth as a function solely of surface gravity. We also demonstrate, again as a consequence of its lower surface gravity, that the Martian lithosphere is more porous, that fractures on Mars remain open to greater depths and are wider at a given depth, and that the maximum penetration depth for opening-mode fractures (i.e., joints) is much deeper on Mars than on Earth. The result of a weak Martian lithosphere is that dykes—the primary mechanism for magma transport on both planets—can propagate more easily and can be much wider on Mars than on Earth. We suggest that this increased the efficiency of magma delivery to and towards the Martian surface during its volcanically active past, and therefore assisted the exogeneous and endogenous growth of the planet’s enormous volcanoes (the heights of which are supported by the thick Martian lithosphere) as well as extensive flood-mode volcanism. The porous and pervasively fractured (and permeable) nature of the Martian lithosphere will have also greatly assisted the subsurface storage of and transport of fluids through the lithosphere throughout its geologically history. And so it is that surface gravity, influenced by the mass of a planetary body, can greatly modify the mechanical and hydraulic behaviour of its lithosphere with manifest differences in surface topography and geomorphology, volcanic character, and hydrology.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)103-114
Number of pages12
Early online date10 Sep 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017

    Research areas

  • Mars, Brittle, Ductile, Volcano, Dyke, Lithosphere, Strength

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