Get access

Martian plate tectonics


  • Norman H. Sleep


The northern lowlands of Mars may have been produced by plate tectonics. Preexisting old thick highland crust was subducted, while seafloor spreading produced thin lowland crust during Late Noachian and Early Hesperian time. In the preferred reconstruction, a breakup margin extended north of Cimmeria Terra between Daedalia Planum and Isidis Planitia where the highland-lowland transition is relatively simple. South dipping subduction occurred beneath Arabia Terra and east dipping subducuon beneath Tharsis Montes and Tempe Terra. Lineations associated with Gordii Dorsum are attributed to ridge-parallel structures, while Phelegra Montes and Scandia Colles are interpreted as transform-parallel structures or ridge-fault-fault triple junction tracks. Other than for these few features, there is little topographic roughness in the lowlands. Seafloor spreading, if it occurred, must have been relatively rapid. Quantitative estimates of spreading rate are obtained by considering the physics of seafloor spreading in the lower (∼0.4 g) gravity of Mars, the absence of vertical scarps from age differences across fracture zones, and the smooth axial topography. To the first order, the height of vertical scarps across fracture zones does not involve gravity. Crustal thickness at a given potential temperature in the mantle source region scales inversely with gravity. Thus, the velocity of the rough-smooth transition for axial topography also scales inversely with gravity. Plate reorganizations where young crust becomes difficult to subduct are another constraint on spreading age. Possible plate reorganizations, for example, the end of spreading through Alba Patera, occur when the ridge axis is far from the trench. That is, rapid plate motions are inferred to have placed young oceanic crust far from the ridge axis. The preferred full spreading rate 90° from the plate pole is 80 mm yr−1. Plate tectonics, if it occurred, dominated the thermal and stress history of the planet. A geochemical implication is that the lower gravity of Mars allows deeper hydrothermal circulation through cracks and hence more hydration of oceanic crust so that more water is easily subducted than on the Earth. Age and structural relationships from photogeology as well as median wavelength gravity anomalies across the now dead breakup and subduction margins are the data most likely to test and modify hypotheses about Mars plate tectonics.