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Scientists find Martian ice age shaped red planet, creating giant valleys like those on Earth

Sean Keach, August 4, 2020 7:00PM The Sun

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This recent image shows a polar ice cap on northern Mars. Picture: NASA media_cameraThis recent image shows a polar ice cap on northern Mars. Picture: NASA


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Mars was once covered in huge ice sheets that carved out thousands of giant valleys, experts have revealed.

The Martian ice age saw glacial* ice change the red planet’s landscape – in the same way as on Earth.

This challenges previous theories that Mars was warm and wet at the time, covered in rivers, oceans and under heavy rainfall.

Now scientists believe that there was so much ice 3.8 billion years ago that it created huge valleys, which can still be seen today.

Ancient Mars may have been covered in a huge ice sheet Credit: NASA media_cameraAn artist’s illustration of what ancient Mars could have looked like, covered in so much ice that it created giant valleys still obvious today. Picture: NASA

The discovery involved using computer modelling to reveal how thousands of individual Martian valleys were created.

“For the last 40 years, since Mars’ valleys were first discovered, the assumption was that rivers once flowed on Mars, eroding* and originating all of these valleys,” said lead author Anne Grau Galofre, of the University of British Columbia, Canada.

“But there are hundreds of valleys on Mars, and they look very different from each other.

“If you look at Earth from a satellite you see a lot of valleys.

“Some of them (are) made by glaciers, some made by other processes, and each type has a distinctive shape.

“Mars is similar, in that valleys look very different from each other, suggesting that many processes were at play to carve them.”

Dr Grau Galofre’s inspiration for the study came from the channels on Devon Island, in the Canadian Arctic.

Dr Grau Galofre and her co-author realised how similar they were to many Martian valleys.

“Devon Island is one of the best analogues* we have for Mars here on Earth — it is a cold, dry, polar desert, and the glaciation is largely cold-based,” said Gordon Odinski, a professor at Western University.

The early Martian landscape probably looked similar to this photo of the Devon ice cap, researchers say Credit: UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA media_cameraThe early Martian landscape probably looked similar to this photo of the Devon ice cap on Devon Island, Canada. Picture: University of British Columbia

Researchers studied more than 10,000 Martian valleys.

And the results showed that there was “extensive subglacial erosion” on the Martian surface.

This was driven by channels of meltwater drainage below an ancient ice sheet on Mars.

The study also showed that “only a fraction” of valley networks matched typical surface water erosion – the kind created by rivers or oceans.

It helps explain how valleys formed 3.8 billion years ago on a planet more distant from the Sun than Earth – when the Sun was less intense.

“Climate modelling predicts that Mars’ ancient climate was much cooler during the time of valley network formation,” Dr Grau Galofre explained.

“We tried to put everything together and bring up a hypothesis* that hadn’t really been considered.

“That channels and valley networks can form under ice sheets, as part of the drainage system that forms naturally under an ice sheet when there’s water accumulated at the base.”

According to the researchers, the ice age environment would have supported better survival conditions for ancient Martian life.

Ice sheets would have provided more protection and stability for the underlying water and shelter from star radiation in the absence of a magnetic field*.

This research was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

The top half of the image is Mars' Maumee valleys, superimposed with channels on Devon Island in the bottom half – revealing an almost identical shape Credit: UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA media_cameraThe top half of the image is Mars’ Maumee valleys, with channels on Devon Island in the bottom half, revealing an almost identical shape. Picture: University of British Columbia


  • China, US and UAE launched missions in July to explore Mars. The China and US missions are to land on Mars in February 2021. The UAE’s mission is to orbit Mars.
  • Mars is mountainous and hosts the tallest mountain known in the Solar System, called Olympus Mons, which is three times higher than Everest.
  • Mars is considered to be the second most habitable planet after Earth.
  • It takes the planet 687 Earth days to orbit the Sun
  • So far, there have been 39 missions to Mars but only 16 of these have been successful.

This story was first published on The Sun and is republished with permission.


  • glacial: to do with glaciers, which is a huge mass of ice that moves slowly over land
  • eroding: washing or wearing away
  • analogues: things comparable to each other
  • hypothesis: an idea or theory to test
  • magnetic field: shield that protects some planets from the charged particles coming from the Sun. The Earth has a magnetic field but Mars doesn’t really the same kind of magnetic field


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  1. Describe what Mars was previously thought to have been like.
  2. How many Martian valleys did the researchers study?
  3. Which countries launched missions to Mars in July?
  4. Name the tallest mountain in the Solar System.
  5. How many Earth days is a year on Mars?


1. Images of Mars
Choose an aspect of this Kids News article that interests you the most to visually represent in an illustration or art piece of your choice. You could choose to do a painting, drawing, collage or 3D diorama if time permits. Choose a title for your piece and write a short sentence about what it represents

Time: allow 40 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: Visual Arts

2. Extension
Write a list of questions you have about planet Mars or Olympus Mons. Compare your questions to others and discuss your wonderings.

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and Creative thinking

Down-Level It
When you up-level a sentence, you do things to it to improve it: make it more interesting, or more complex.

But sometimes, when we read something it can be too complex and we don’t understand it very well. You ask someone to explain it to you, they do (in a simpler way) and you think, well why didn’t they just say that?

Go through the article and find a sentence or two that is complex, or hard to read.

Ask an adult what it means, or try and look some of the words up in the glossary.

Once you know what it means, see if you can rewrite it in a simpler way- down-level it.

Make sure you don’t change the meaning of the sentence in any way though.

HAVE YOUR SAY: What interests you most about Mars?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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