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Mars sand dunes may hint at water beneath

The discovery, based on research in Alaska, opens a window on processes at play early in Mars' history, when it hosted an environment that could have harbored microbial life.

By Staff writer / March 30, 2013

Dunes spanning an area about the size of Texas in the Martian equivalent of the Arctic.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

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Shifting dunes on Mars, especially those near the planet's north pole, may harbor layers of liquid water not far beneath their ice-encrusted surfaces.

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That is the implication of studies of sand dunes in Alaska's Kobuk Valley National Park, some 380 miles northwest of Fairbanks. There, above the Arctic Circle, researchers using the dunes as stand-ins for dunes on Mars have found evidence for liquid water trapped between the dunes' icy winter coat and subsurface layers of ice or freeze-dried silt that form a temporary, cement-like barrier that prevents the water from percolating deeper into the dune.

The water remains liquid because it exists in an environment of temperature and pressure that allows liquid water, ice, and water vapor to exist side by side.

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The discovery of this seasonal mechanism for storing liquid water on Mars-like features at Mars-like temperatures opens a window on processes that could have been at play early in Mars' history, when it hosted an environment that could have harbored microbial life.

 And it could help explain debris flows scientists have spotted on sunlit sections of crater and canyon walls in various locations around the planet.

"Mars has likely had active sand dunes during every geologic era, and some of these eras were warmer and wetter than Mars is today," notes Cynthia Dinwiddie, a researcher with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

"There is some possibility that equivalent processes are currently occurring on Mars," primarily in dune fields in Mars' equivalent of the Arctic, she writes in an email. Still, "the likelihood is even greater that equivalent processes occurred on ancient Mars."

The dune field in Alaska that Dr. Dinwiddie and Southwest Research Institute colleague Don Hooper study sits on the boundary between boreal forests to the south and Arctic tundra to the north. Known as the Great Kobuk Sand Dune field, the sands were first formed during ice ages that occurred between 300,000 and 130,000 years ago.

Glaciers sculpted the Brooks Range to the north and left the sandy debris in the Kobuk River Valley. There, wind, meltwater, and more-recent ice ages would continue to rework the material to leave some 24 square miles of mobile dunes on the surface and another 250 square miles of sandy soils that don't get around much anymore.

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