Serpentinization As a Possible Mechanism at the Origin of Valley Network Formation on Early Mars

Friday, 19 December 2014
Eric Chassefiere, University of Paris-Sud 11, Orsay, France, Jeremie Lasue, IRAP, Toulouse, France, Benoit Langlais, Lab Planetologie Geodynamique, Nantes, France and Yoann Quesnel, CEREGE, Aix-en-Provence Cedex, France
Serpentinization is a metamorphic process by which ultramafic rocks are hydrothermally altered to store H2O, produce magnetite and release H2, a part of which may be converted into CH4 by Fischer-Tropsch reactions. It could have been a major process to trap a large fraction of the H2O of the planet during the Noachian in altered minerals at depth and at the same time release a significant amount of H2 and CH4 to the crust and the atmosphere. An amount of a 300-1000 m deep Global Equivalent Layer of H2O trapped in serpentine has been proved to be consistent with both present crustal magnetization and atmospheric D/H ratio (Chassefière et al., 2013). The corresponding total amount of H2 released in the course of serpentinization is ~7 1020 moles, a part of which (up to several tens percents by referring to Earth’s case) may have been converted to CH4 and trapped in the lower cryosphere under hydrate form. As shown by Lasue et al. (2014), the CH4 trapping capacity of the early martian cryosphere exceeds, or is similar to, the above amount. Any destabilization of the CH4-rich cryosphere after most serpentinization occurred, at the end of the Noachian, could have resulted in the release to the atmosphere of huge amounts of CH4, rapidly converted into H2 by photochemical reactions. Ramirez et al. (2014) have shown that the collision-induced absorption caused by H2 could have increased surface temperature above H2O freezing point, provided CO2 pressure was in the range from 1-2 bar and H2 mixing ratio larger than 5%. A simple calculation shows that the CH4 accumulated in the early martian cryosphere is able to feed up the atmosphere with H2 at the required level during a time up to 2 107 yr, larger than the time generally assumed to be necessary for valley network formation (Hoke et al., 2011). We discuss the possible occurrence of a positive feedback of H2-induced greenhouse increasing the amount of liquid H2O available for serpentinization, and the resulting potentially sharp climate change. Because the same mechanism is responsible for both H2-induce greenhouse and trapping of H2O to serpentine, a rapid tipping from a short intense hydrological event to dry conditions is expected. Possible removal by flowing water of most of CO2 atmosphere and its transfer to subsurface hydrothermal systems where carbonate may have been formed is also discussed.