Role of Clay Minerals in Long-Distance Transport of Landslides in Valles Marineris, Mars

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Jessica Watkins1, Bethany L Ehlmann2 and An Yin1, (1)University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, United States, (2)California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, United States
Long-runout (> 50 km) subaerial landslides are rare on Earth, but are common features episodically shaping Mars' Valles Marineris (VM) trough system over the past 3.5 billion years. They display two end-member morphologies: a thick-skinned inner zone, characterized by fault-bounded, rotated blocks near their source region, and a thin-skinned, exceptionally long-runout outer zone, characterized by thin sheets spreading over 10s of km across the trough floor. Four decades of studies on the latter have resulted in two main competing hypotheses to explain their long-distance transport: (1) movement of landslides over layers of trapped air or soft materials containing ice or snow, enabling basal lubrication, and (2) fluidization of landslide materials with or without the presence of water and volatiles. To address this issue, we examine the mineralogic composition of landslides across VM using Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) near-infrared spectral data analysis coupled with detailed geologic mapping and morphometric analysis of satellite images. Our survey reveals a general correlation between transport distance, significant lateral spreading, and the presence of hydrated silicates among VM landslides. Given that smectite clay absorbs water into its layered crystal structure and can reduce the friction coefficient by a factor of three v. that of dry rocks, these results suggest that hydrated silicates played a decisive role in facilitating long-runout landslide transport in VM. We propose that, concurrent with downslope failure and sliding of broken trough-wall rock, frontal landslide masses overrode and entrained hydrated-silicate-bearing trough-floor deposits, lubricating the basal sliding zones and permitting the landslide outer zones to spread laterally while moving forward over the low-friction surface. The key participation of hydrated silicates in episodic, sustained landslide activity throughout the canyon implies that clay minerals, generated by water-rock interactions in the Noachian and Hesperian (4.1- 3.3 Ga), exert a long-lasting influence on geomorphic processes that shape the surface of the planet.