Evolution of the rheological structure of Mars
© The Author(s) 2017
Received: 18 June 2016
Accepted: 20 December 2016
Published: 3 January 2017
Mars is a terrestrial planet and, like Earth, is composed of rock and metal. There is no standing liquid water, advanced surface life, or plate tectonics on Mars, suggesting that Mars and Earth followed different evolutionary paths (e.g., Zuber 2001). Plate tectonics is a convection style that dominates the material circulation between a planetary surface and its interior. Therefore, the absence of plate tectonics on Mars could have significantly influenced its evolution. Previous studies have discussed the possibility of plate tectonics on Mars in the past (e.g., Sleep 1994; Connerney et al. 1999; Schubert et al. 2001; Breuer and Spohn 2003). Sleep (1994) proposed that the crustal dichotomy on Mars was produced by past plate tectonics because crustal thinning over an 8000-km-wide region in the northern lowlands of Mars is unlikely without plate tectonics. In contrast, it has been suggested, based on gravity and topography data of Mars, that the crustal dichotomy was formed by a giant impact (Andrews-Hanna et al. 2008). Connerney et al. (1999, 2005) suggested that the magnetic lineation patterns observed by Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) provide evidence for plate tectonics or plate divergence on Mars. However, there is no other evidence for plate divergence on Mars. Therefore, the occurrence of plate tectonics on Mars remains a matter of debate. The initiation of plate tectonics requires a lithosphere of moderate thickness and plate boundaries (i.e., a lithosphere of moderate strength; e.g., Solomatov and Moresi 1996; Tackley 1998). To consider the history of planetary tectonics, the lithospheric strength and thickness should be evaluated from the calculated rheological structures.
Calculation of temperature profiles
Parameters for calculation of thermal structure in Mars
Crustal density ρc (kg/m3)
Crustal thickness hc (km)
Crustal thermal conductivity kc (W/m K)
Mantle density ρm (kg/m3)
Surface temperature T 0 (K)
Martian radius R m (km)
Core radius R c (km)
Surface gravity g (ms−2)
Gas constant R (JK−1mol−1)
Rates of heat release H and half-lives of the radioactive isotopes
Half-lives τ (yr)
Abundance ratio (%)
9.46 × 10−5
4.47 × 109
5.69 × 10−4
7.04 × 108
9.81 × 10−5
2.64 × 10−5
1.40 × 1010
2.92 × 10−5
1.25 × 109
3.48 × 10−9
Calculation of rheological structure
Parameters of flow law
A (s−1 MPa−n μmm)
σ p (MPa)
Rybacki and Dresen (2000)
Azuma et al. (2014)
Rybacki and Dresen (2000)
Azuma et al. (2014)
Hirth and Kohlstedt (2003)
Hirth and Kohlstedt (2003)
Katayama and Karato (2008)
Hirth and Kohlstedt (2003)
1.1 × 105
Hirth and Kohlstedt (2003)
Katayama and Karato (2008)
Figures 6 and 7 show the evolution of the rheological structure of the Martian North Pole and Solis Planum, respectively. In both cases, the rheological structure for a dry rheology shows marked temporal changes in strength. In contrast, the rheological structure for a wet rheology shows relatively gradual temporal changes in strength and in structure. A comparison between present and past Mars shows that the BDT of present-day Mars is deeper than that of past Mars, suggesting that the lithospheric thickness of present-day Mars is greater than that of past Mars (Figs. 5, 6, 7). The rheological structure of past Mars (Figs. 6, 7) indicates that the strength and depth of the BDT were similar to those of the present-day Earth, as proposed by Kohlstedt et al. (1995). For example, the BDT at the North Pole under wet conditions was 1–2 Ga and that at Solis Planum under dry and wet conditions was 4 Ga. This result suggests that the past Martian interior might have been similar to that of present-day Earth, even if past Mars was under strictly dry conditions.
Rheological structures at the North Pole and Solis Planum
Rheological structures should be modeled by appropriate depth-dependent deformation mechanisms. Most previous studies consider only power-law creep (Eqs. 16, 19) as a deformation mechanism for planetary crust and mantle in calculations of lithospheric strength and thickness and in numerical simulations of mantle convection (e.g., Solomatov and Moresi 1997; Mackwell et al. 1998; Grott and Breuer 2008). However, recent experimental studies of rock rheology have reported that the Peierls mechanism plays an important role in rock deformation at relatively low temperature and high stress (Katayama and Karato 2008; Demouchy et al. 2013). Our calculations show that the Peierls mechanism is dominant at relatively shallow depths under our assumptions (Figs. 5, 6, 7), indicating that the application of power-law creep to a low-temperature region (T < 1000 °C) leads to an overestimation of lithospheric strength and thickness.
The rheological structure indicates the existence of an incompetent layer and a strength contrast between the crust and mantle; therefore, knowledge of the rheological structure is key to understanding the evolution of planetary interiors. Incompetent layers are usually defined as those having yield strengths of less than 10–20 MPa or a yield strength that does not exceed 1–5% in lithostatic pressure (Burov and Diament 1995). The existence of incompetent crust has a strong influence on the elastic thickness (McNutt et al. 1988; Grott and Breuer 2010), and the strength contrast across the Moho in terrestrial planets may result in mechanical decoupling between the crust and mantle (Burov and Diament 1995; Azuma et al. 2014). For example, a weak lower crust (incompetent layer) that cannot support the tectonic stress (e.g., bending stress) may allow a strong upper crust (competent layer) to deform independently of the mantle lithosphere (Burov and Diament 1995).
Under dry conditions, the calculated rheological structure shows no strength contrast across the Moho at the present-day Martian North Pole, indicating that the crust and mantle are mechanically coupled (Fig. 5a). This means that a convecting mantle may influence planetary surface motion, as is the case for Earth’s oceanic lithosphere. This also suggests that surface load of the NPLD directly affects the mantle deformation. Similarly, under water-saturated conditions, the rheological structure of the North Pole has no strength contrast between the crust and mantle, which prevented decoupling from occurring at the Moho even under wet conditions (Fig. 6a).
In the present-day Solis Planum, the strength contrast across the Moho under dry conditions is nonexistent, suggesting that the crust and mantle are mechanically coupled (Fig. 5). Under wet conditions, however, the lithosphere in the Solis Planum has a strength contrast between the crust and mantle, which may have caused the mechanical decoupling at this boundary.
The rheological structures for the past North Pole and Solis Planum show variations in terms of strength contrast, incompetent crust, strength, and BDT depth (Figs. 5, 6, 7). In the North Pole region, under dry conditions, there is no incompetent crustal layer and no strength contrast throughout Martian history (Fig. 6). In contrast, under wet conditions, a strength contrast exists from 4 to 3 Ga, indicating that decoupling may have occurred between the crust and mantle in the past North Pole. Throughout Martian history, no incompetent crustal layer formed under wet conditions, indicating that the effect of the incompetent crustal layer, which reduces the elastic thickness beneath the North Pole, is nonexistent.
In contrast to the North Pole, the lithosphere beneath the past Solis Planum experienced a strength contrast for a relatively long time, which suggests mechanical decoupling between the crust and mantle from 2 Ga to the present day under wet conditions (Figs. 5, 7). The incompetent crust that existed from 3 to 2 Ga under wet conditions likely contributed to the small elastic thickness (24–37 km) in the Solis Planum (e.g., McGovern et al. 2002, 2004; Ruiz et al. 2006). The observed thin elastic thickness at Solis Planum in the Hesperian era might be attributed to the existence of incompetent crust produced under wet conditions.
Evolution of the BDT and lithospheric strength
On present-day Mars, it is believed that stagnant-lid convection is dominant and that convection occurs only beneath the thick, rigid, and immobile lithosphere (e.g., Solomatov and Moresi 1997). Although plate tectonics does not appear to have occurred on present-day Mars, previous studies have discussed whether plate-like tectonics have occurred on Mars in the past (e.g., Sleep 1994; Connerney et al. 1999; Schubert et al. 2001; Breuer and Spohn 2003). Importantly, the initiation of plate tectonics requires moderate lithospheric thickness and faulting on a sufficient scale to form plate boundaries (e.g., Nimmo and McKenzie 1998; Tackley 1998, 2000); therefore, the lithosphere must have moderate strength (≤200–300 MPa) for plate tectonics to occur. In this section, we discuss the time evolution of the lithospheric thickness and strength on Mars.
Water also plays an important role in the temporal changes in BDT depth. In models of the Martian past, at both the North Pole and Solis Planum, the BDT for a wet rheology is shallower than that for a dry rheology; this suggests a thin lithosphere in water-rich environments (Fig. 8). For both wet and dry rheologies, the BDT depth in both regions tends to increase with time, suggesting that the net thickness of the lithosphere could have changed throughout Martian history. The BDT depth would have increased more rapidly under dry conditions than that in a wet rheology (Fig. 8). According to these calculations, the lithospheric structure and its evolution could be quite different depending on whether the past conditions on Mars were dry or wet. The thick lithosphere under dry conditions may have resulted in stagnant-lid convection, whereas a relatively thin lithosphere under wet conditions would have been a necessary condition for the development of narrow plate boundaries.
These analyses of lithospheric thickness (Fig. 8) and strength (Fig. 9) suggest that water plays a key role in the evolution of planetary interiors. The initiation of plate tectonics on past Mars is likely to have required water, and the lithospheric strength may have changed dramatically owing to water loss during the Noachian (Fig. 9). These results suggest the possibility that Martian tectonics also changed with the rheological structure after the pre-Noachian. Although it is difficult to determine whether plate tectonics occurred on Mars based on analyses of rheological structure alone, it is important to perform convection simulations based on the rheological structures proposed in this study.
We presented the rheological structure of Mars and its time evolution, and we discussed the evolution of the Martian interior. The rheological structure of Mars determined in this study indicates that shallow deformation on Mars was controlled mostly by the Peierls mechanism and that the application of power-law creep alone leads to an overestimation of lithospheric strength. The rheological structures on Mars should therefore be calculated by using the Peierls mechanism in addition to power-law creep. Our results show that the lithosphere of past Mars had moderate strength owing to the presence of water during the Noachian. In addition, the rheological structures and lithospheric strength of Mars may have changed owing to water loss later in Martian history. Therefore, Mars lost its capability to develop plate boundaries, which are necessary for the initiation of plate tectonics.
We provided a more realistic rheological structure of the Martian lithosphere in this study. The next step toward understanding Martian planetary evolution is to evaluate the rheological structure beneath large Martian mountains such as Olympus. Gravity and topography data for large Martian mountains have been used to estimate the strength of the Martian lithosphere in previous studies (e.g., Arkani-Hamed 2000); however, these studies consider only power-law creep and use linear thermal gradients. To adequately account for the complex evolution of the Martian lithosphere, future work should re-evaluate the rheological structure beneath large Martian mountains and should test whether the calculated lithosphere could sustain large mountains such as Olympus.
In our models, the thermal structures were based on the abundance of radiogenic heat-producing elements in the crust for each region (Hahn et al. 2011). More accurate thermal structures would require direct observation of surface heat flow. A new NASA lander, Interior Exploration Using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight), will be launched in 2018. This mission to Mars will place a seismometer and heat-flow probe on the surface to provide more accurate, detailed information on the interior of the planet. We look forward to new opportunities for exciting research into the mysteries of Martian planetary evolution.
SA calculated the thermal structure and the evolution of rheological structure on Mars. SA and IK contributed to the discussion and implications. IK helped to improve the manuscript. SA and IK read and approved the final manuscript. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors thank T. Nakakuki and K. Okazaki for offering advice and encouragement. Data supporting Fig. 4 is provided in Tables 1, 2. Data supporting Figs. 5, 6, 7 are provided in Table 3. This study was supported by the Global Career Design Center at Hiroshima University, Japan.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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