• climate;
  • Mars;
  • polar layered deposits

[1] The record of recent climate change on Mars is encoded in the polar layered deposits within the north polar cap. Individual Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) images of exposed layer sequences in cliffs and troughs provide the equivalent of high resolution “cores” through many sections in the upper part of the north polar layered terrain. In order to decode this record it is necessary 1) to quantitatively characterize the layers in individual “cores” and 2) to assess possible correlations between “cores” in vertical layered deposit sequences across the cap. We use two techniques commonly employed in paleoceanography for the study of deep-sea sediment cores on Earth to establish the characteristics of layers in individual cores (Fourier analysis) and to determine the correlation between cores (curve-shape matching algorithms). Application to “cores” (vertical sections) of the north polar layered terrain on Mars reveals several fundamental properties of north polar cap stratigraphy: 1) Fourier analysis of the layer vertical sequences reveals a characteristic and repetitive wavelength of ∼30 m thickness throughout the upper part (Zone 1) of all sequences analyzed. 2) Application of curve-shape matching algorithms demonstrates that layers correlate across at least three quarters of the cap (∼6 × 105 km2) in the 13 images analyzed to date. 3) Assessment of geometric relationships shows that layers are not horizontal, but rather have an apparent dip of approximately 0.5 degrees. We interpret these results as follows: 1) The fundamental ∼30 m signal is interpreted as a climate signal that may correspond to a 51 kyr insolation cycle. 2) The lateral correlation and broad distribution of these layer sequences strongly imply that layer accumulation processes are widespread across the cap, rather than confined within a single trough or region. 3) Local to regional variability in individual layer thicknesses (and thus accumulation and sublimation rates) is typically less than a factor of 2.5, providing the ability to study regional trends, but often making it difficult to correlate visually the vertical sequences in individual cores. Finally, initial examination of layers located deeper in the stratigraphic sequence within the north polar cap than the ∼300 m thick Zone 1 provides evidence for a unit less than 100 m thick (Zone 2) in which the fundamental ∼30 m sequence is not detected. We interpret this as a deposit having formed during a recent high-obliquity phase of Mars, during which time polar volatiles underwent mobilization and were transport equatorward, leaving a polar lag of dust-rich material. The most recent “ice age” (∼0.5–2 Ma) offers a plausible candidate for this period of ice cap removal and lag deposit formation. An underlying Zone 3 (∼200 m) contains a dominant 35 m signal, and a lowermost Zone 4 (∼200 m) contains multiple signals but no dominant one. Together these four zones represent ∼800 m of vertical stratigraphic section, about one-fourth of the total thickness of the cap. These findings support earlier interpretations that orbital parameter variations could cause significant erosion and possibly complete removal of the polar caps. The interpreted crater retention ages of the layered terrain are consistent with the correlations and vertical sequences described here, suggesting that the polar caps wax and wane throughout geological history, depending on the evolution of orbital parameters. Definition of the ∼30 m unit signal holds promise for determining 1) the detailed origin of individual layer types, 2) the nature of deposition and sublimation processes and their relation to insolation geometry across the polar cap, and 3) correlation with and comparison to the south polar layered terrain record.