Common surface features of Mars

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The common surface features of Mars include dark slope streaks, dust devil tracks, sand dunes, Medusae Fossae Formation, fretted terrain, layers, gullies, glaciers, scalloped topography, chaos terrain, possible ancient rivers, pedestal craters, brain terrain, and ring mold craters.

Slope streaks[edit]

When occurring near the top of a dune, dark sand may cascade down the dune leaving dark surface streaks -- streaks that might appear at first to be trees standing in front of the lighter regions.

A new phenomenon known as slope streaks has been uncovered by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These features appear on crater walls and other slopes, and they are thin and many hundreds of metres long. The streaks have been observed to grow slowly over the course of a year or so, always beginning at a point source. Newly formed streaks are dark in colour but fade as they age until white. The cause is unknown, but theories range from dry dust avalanches (the favoured theory) to brine seepage.[1]

Examples of dark slope streaks from various parts of Mars are shown below. Click on image to get a better view.

Dust devil tracks[edit]

Many areas on Mars experience the passage of giant dust devils. A thin coating of fine bright dust covers most of the Martian surface. When a dust devil travels by, it blows away the coating and exposes the underlying dark surface. These dust devils have been seen both from the ground and from orbit. They have even blown the dust off the solar panels of the two Rovers on Mars, thereby greatly extending their lives.[2] The twin Rovers were designed to last for 3 months; instead, they have lasted eleven years and are still going. The pattern of the tracks have been shown to change every few months.[3]


Many places on Mars show rocks arranged in layers. Rock can form layers in a variety of ways. Volcanoes, wind, or water can produce layers.[4]

A detailed discussion of layering with many Martian examples can be found in Sedimentary Geology of Mars.[5] Layers can be hardened by the action of groundwater. Martian ground water probably moved hundreds of kilometers, and in the process it dissolved many minerals from the rock it passed through. When ground water surfaces in low areas containing sediments, water evaporates in the thin atmosphere and leaves behind minerals as deposits and/or cementing agents. Consequently, layers of dust could not later easily erode away since they were cemented together.


Sand dunes[edit]

Many locations on Mars have sand dunes. An erg (or sand sea), made up of aeolian dune fields referred to as the Circumpolar Dune Field[6] surrounds most of the north polar cap.[7] The dunes are covered by a seasonal carbon dioxide frost that forms in early autumn and remains until late spring.[7] Many martian dunes strongly resemble terrestrial dunes but images acquired by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have shown that martian dunes in the north polar region are subject to modification via grainflow triggered by seasonal CO2 sublimation, a process not seen on Earth.[8] Many dunes are black because they are derived from the dark volcanic rock basalt. Extraterrestrial sand seas such as those found on Mars are referred to as "undae" from the Latin for waves.


Martian gullies are small, incised networks of narrow channels and their associated downslope sediment deposits, found on the planet of Mars. They are named for their resemblance to terrestrial gullies. First discovered on images from Mars Global Surveyor, they occur on steep slopes, especially on the walls of craters. Usually, each gully has a dendritic alcove at its head, a fan-shaped apron at its base, and a single thread of incised channel linking the two, giving the whole gully an hourglass shape.[9] They are believed to be relatively young because they have few, if any craters.

On the basis of their form, aspects, positions, and location amongst and apparent interaction with features thought to be rich in water ice, many researchers believed that the processes carving the gullies involve liquid water. However, this remains a topic of active research.

Main article: Martian gullies

Medusae Fossae Formation[edit]

The Medusae Fossae Formation is a soft, easily eroded deposit that extends for nearly 1,000 km along the equator of Mars. Sometimes the formation appears as a smooth and gently undulating surface; however, in places it is wind-sculpted into ridges and grooves.[10] Radar imaging has suggested that the region may contain either extremely porous rock (for example volcanic ash) or deep layers of glacier-like ice deposits amounting to about the same quantity as is stored in Mars' south polar cap.[11][12]

The lower portion (member) of Medusae Fossae Formation contains many patterns and shapes that are thought to be the remains of streams. It is believed that streams formed valleys that were filled and became resistant to erosion by cementaion of minerals or by the gathering of a coarse covering layer. These inverted stream beds are sometimes called sinuous ridges or raised curvilinear features. They may be a kilometer or so in length. Their height ranges from a meter to greater than 10 meters, while the width of the narrow ones is less than 10 meters.[13]

The wind has eroded the surface of the formation into a series of linear ridges called yardangs. These ridges generally point in the direction of the prevailing winds that carved them and demonstrate the erosive power of martian winds. The easily eroded nature of the Medusae Fossae Formation suggests that it is composed of weakly cemented particles, and was most likely formed by the deposition of wind-blown dust or volcanic ash. Layers are seen in parts of the formation. A resistant caprock on the top of yardangs has been observed in Viking,[14] Mars Global Surveyor,[15] and HiRISE photos.[16] Very few impact craters are visible throughout the area so the surface is relatively young.[17]

Fretted terrain[edit]

Fretted terrain is a type of surface feature common to certain areas of Mars and discovered in Mariner 9 images. It lies between two different surfaces. The surface of Mars can be divided into two parts: low, young, uncratered plains that cover most of the northern hemisphere, and high-standing, old, heavily cratered areas that cover the southern hemisphere and a small part of the northern hemisphere. Between these two zones is the fretted terrain, containing a complicated mix of cliffs, mesas, buttes, and straight-walled and sinuous canyons. Fretted terrain contains smooth, flat lowlands along with steep cliffs. The scarps or cliffs are usually 1 to 2 km high. Channels in the area have wide, flat floors and steep walls.[18] Fretted terrain is most common in northern Arabia, between latitudes 30°N and 50°N and longitudes 270°W and 360°W.[19] Parts of the fretted terrain are called Deuteronilus Mensae and Protonilus Mensae.

In fretted terrain, the land seems to transition from narrow straight valleys to isolated mesas. Most of the mesas are surrounded by forms that have been called a variety of names (circum-mesa aprons, debris aprons, rock glaciers, and Lobate Debris Aprons).[20] At first they appeared to resemble rock glaciers on Earth, but scientists could not be sure. Eventually, proof of their true nature was discovered by radar studies with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and showed that they contain pure water ice covered with a thin layer of rocks that insulated the ice.[21][22][23][24][25][26]

In addition to rock covered glaciers around mesas, the region has many steep-walled valleys with lineations—ridges and grooves—on their floors. The material comprising these valley floors is called lineated valley fill. In some of the best images taken by the Viking Orbiters, some of the valley fill appeared to resemble alpine glaciers on Earth. Given this similarity, some scientists assumed that the lineations on these valley floors might have formed by flow of ice in (and perhaps through) these canyons and valleys. Today, it is generally agreed that glacial flow caused the lineations.


Glaciers, loosely defined as patches of currently or recently flowing ice, are thought to be present across large but restricted areas of the modern Martian surface, and are inferred to have been more widely distributed at times in the past.[27][28]

Main article: Glaciers on Mars
Martian glacier moving down a valley, as seen by HiRISE under HiWish program.


Concentric crater fill[edit]

Concentric crater fill, like lobate debris aprons and lineated valley fill, is believed to be ice-rich.[29] Based on accurate topography measures of height at different points in these craters and calculations of how deep the craters should be based on their diameters, it is thought that the craters are 80% filled with mostly ice.[30][31][32][33] That is, they hold hundreds of meters of material that probably consists of ice with a few tens of meters of surface debris.[34][35] The ice accumulated in the crater from snowfall in previous climates.[36][37][38] Recent modeling suggests that concentric crater fill develops over many cycles in which snow is deposited, then moves into the crater. Once inside the crater shade and dust preserve the snow. The snow changes to ice. The many concentric lines are created by the many cycles of snow accumulation. Generally snow accumulates whenever the axial tilt reaches 35 degrees.[39]

Chaos terrain[edit]

Chaos terrain is believed to be associated with the release of huge amounts of water. The chaotic features may have collapsed when water came out of the surface. Martian outflow channels commonly begin with a Chaos region. A chaotic region can be recognized by a tangle of mesas, buttes, and hills, all chopped through with valleys which in places look almost patterned. Some parts of this chaotic area have not collapsed completely—they are still formed into large mesas, so they may still contain water ice.[40] Chaotic terrain occurs in numerous locations on Mars, and always gives the strong impression that something abruptly disturbed the ground. Chaos regions formed long ago. By counting craters (more craters in any given area means an older surface) and by studying the valleys' relations with other geological features, scientists have concluded the channels formed 2.0 to 3.8 billion years ago.[41]


Much of the surface of Mars is covered by a thick smooth mantle that is thought to be a mixture of ice and dust.[42] This ice-rich mantle, a few yards thick, smoothes the land. But in places it displays a bumpy texture, resembling the surface of a basketball. Because there are few craters on this mantle, the mantle is relatively young.

It’s generally accepted that mantle is ice-rich dust that fell from the sky as snow and ice-coated dust grains during a different climate [43] One evidence of its ice-rich nature is the presence of gullies which form when some of the ice melts.[44][45][46]

The images below, all taken with HiRISE, show a variety of views of this smooth mantle.

Scalloped topography[edit]

Scalloped topography is common in the mid-latitudes of Mars, between 45° and 60° north and south. It is particularly prominent in the region of Utopia Planitia[47][48] in the northern hemisphere and in the region of Peneus and Amphitrites Patera[49][50] in the southern hemisphere. Such topography consists of shallow, rimless depressions with scalloped edges, commonly referred to as "scalloped depressions" or simply "scallops". Scalloped depressions can be isolated or clustered and sometimes seem to coalesce. A typical scalloped depression displays a gentle equator-facing slope and a steeper pole-facing scarp. This topographic asymmetry is probably due to differences in insolation. Scalloped depressions are believed to form from the removal of subsurface material, possibly interstitial ice, by sublimation. This process may still be happening at present.[51]

Ancient rivers?[edit]

There is great deal of evidence that water once flowed in river valleys on Mars. Pictures from orbit show winding valleys, branched valleys, and even meanders with oxbow lakes.[52] Some are visible in the pictures below.

Pedestal crater[edit]

Pedestal craters are believed to be caused by a crater's ejecta protecting the material beneath it from eroding. The underlying material is probably ice-rich; hence these craters indicate where and how much ice was present in the ground.[53][54][55][56]

Main article: Pedestal crater

Brain terrain[edit]

Brain terrain is a feature of the Martian surface, consisting of complex ridges found on lobate debris aprons, lineated valley fill and concentric crater fill. It is so named because it suggests the ridges on the surface of the human brain. Wide ridges are called closed-cell brain terrain, and the less common narrow ridges are called open-cell brain terrain.[57] It is thought that the wide closed-cell terrain contains a core of ice, and when the ice disappears the center of the wide ridge collapses to produce the narrow ridges of the open-cell brain terrain.

Main article: Brain terrain

Ring mold craters[edit]

Ring mold craters are believed to be formed from asteroid impacts into ground that has an underlying layer of ice. The impact produces an rebound of the ice layer to form a "ring-mold" shape.

Main article: Ring mold crater



In the spring, various shapes appear because frost is disappearing from the surface, exposing the underling dark soil. Also, in some places dust is blown out of in geyser-like eruptions that are sometimes called "spiders." If a wind is blowing, the material creates a long, dark streak or fan.

Main article: Geyser (Mars)

See also[edit]


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Recommended reading[edit]

  • Lorenz, R. 2014. The Dune Whisperers. The Planetary Report: 34, 1, 8-14
  • Lorenz, R., J. Zimbelman. 2014. Dune Worlds: How Windblown Sand Shapes Planetary Landscapes. Springer Praxis Books / Geophysical Sciences.
  • Grotzinger, J. and R. Milliken (eds.). 2012. Sedimentary Geology of Mars. SEPM.

External links[edit]