Strength of faults on Mars from MOLA topography

David N. Barnett and Francis Nimmo


The stresses which must be maintained on faults bounding the rift topography at Tempe Fossae (the 'North Tempe Rift' (NTR)) and Valles Marineris (VM) on Mars are estimated, using a simple elastic model and topographic data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA). The absence of rift-flank uplift at the NTR is consistent with an elastic thickness, Te, of 20 km or greater at the time of rift formation. The maximum resolved shear stresses on bounding faults due to this topography do not therefore exceed 20 MPa, similar to the inferred strength of terrestrial faults. Elastic thickness estimates at VM are mostly around 50 km or greater. Therefore, for canyon widths of ~ 400 km, the bounding faults of VM, if present, must be able to withstand stresses of up to approximately 100 MPa. However, if the fault-controlled sections of the canyons do not exceed 150 km in width, as suggested by geomorphological analysis, the fault strength required is only 20 MPa. Although the maximum resolved shear stresses required to support the topography at VM may need to be greater than the stresses which terrestrial faults can support, at least some faults on Mars are no stronger than similar features on the Earth. This observation is consistent with the existence of liquid water in the shallow subsurface of Mars at the time the faults were active. On Venus, plate tectonics is probably prevented by the frictional resistance to motion across strong faults. On Mars, it is more likely that the large thickness of the elastic layer of the lithosphere and the possible positive buoyancy of the crust are responsible for the observed lack of plate tectonics.

Key words: Mars; faults; stress; rifts; elastic thickness; plate tectonics.

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