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MARS: MARINER CANYONS

by Chris Wayan, 2003

Mars Reborn: homepage -- Index: Martian place names -- Planetocopia: more world-models

The most-publicized real estate on Mars is also the least predictable. Elsewhere on Mars the climate's debatable but the land at least stays put--but in the Mariner complex, erosion makes future terrains uncertain. As the planet thaws and the huge aquifers are tapped, the canyon complex will grow--on the neighboring plateaus, great karst-pits will yawn, link up, and form new labyrinths and chasms. But where and how much, exactly? So I've stuck here to existing landforms, only connecting a few dots (existing pit lines). I can only be certain that what you see is NOT what you'll get. Terraforming, in this region, will cause drastic changes.

What IS certain is that these chasms, near-tropical, deep, and mostly east-west (so they're sunny all day, unlike north-south canyons) will be a hot spot, both physically and biologically. Of course, hot on Mars is a relative thing. Cold winds will sweep down from the Noctis Labyrinthus, heat up and rise wherever the cliffs box it in, causing summer thunderstorms and abrupt winter blizzards, as well as fog banks. Microclimates a mile apart will range from hot to cold and wet to dry.

Orbital photo of a terraformed Mars 1000 years from now.
Let's strap on glider wings and sail down Mariner, starting in the Claritas Range. The mountain valleys deepen into the high, chilly Noctis Labyrinthus--the Maze of Night. These dark, deep cracks aren't like any Earth canyons. Many are dead-end all around--mesas in reverse. They're unlikely to fill with water because this land's too porous--aquifers draining caused these pits and cracks in the first place.

The Labyrinth is an oasis of warmer, breathable air dissecting what otherwise would be recognized as a single broad mountain, six kilometers high and hundreds wide. This cracked crazed mesa is snowy, perhaps even glaciated, though not extensively--the sea's too far away. Perhaps in a million years, ice will build up. For now, it's just an altiplano--snowfields with glacial ambitions in the higher stretches, cold, dry, grassy basins in the sumps.

Down in the canyons, springs emerge, and conifers grow, widening to a forest around Lake Noctis at the labyrinth's east end. Oudemans Crater just to the south has a second, higher lake. A substantial river comes in from Lake Tithonius, on the floor of the long chasm to the northeast. In our time, Tithonius is a dead-end canyon, but pits suggest it'll enlarge spectacularly as Mars thaws and rain falls. Orbital photo of a terraformed Mars 1000 years from now: central Mariner complex.

Still, let's continue down the better-mapped branch, Ius Chasma, south of Tithonius. As we glide east, the canyon rims slowly drop into the arbosphere--trees straggle up from the canyon floor onto the plateau, widening to a belt of aspen and fir. The canyon floor rises slowly--the Noctis River runs west to the Lake, not east toward Melas Chasma.

Eventually, we pass the watershed, and the Ius River drains east. For a few days we glide over increasingly warm forests below red cliffs. And then, ahead, a blue glitter--the sea appears. The floor of Melas Chasma is a maze of sounds and mensae (mesa-islands). To the north, a gap in the red wall opens up to Candor Chasma and Ophir beyond it--several hundred kilometers of subtropical fjords. These forests and waters are warmer than Melas, being out of the Noctis wind-tunnel. But let's not pause to explore too long--we're only one-fourth of the way down the complex. We glide east again through Coprates Chasm, the classic Grand Canyon of Mars--a narrow fjord cutting through jungle studded with lenticular mesas like Mayan pyramids. Above it all stand great red walls, capped by aspen-plateaus and even snowy mountains--we're cutting through the tail end of the Claritas Range here.

To the east the plateaus grow lower and warmer. The pines on the north rim are dense, fed by rain from gulfs in three directions. The south rim, further from water, is drier--open pine forest thinning quickly to brush and grassland in the Nirgal Valley to the south.

Coprates opens into a wide gulf with two main channels: straighter Capri in the north, chaotic Eos in the south. Cliff-walled islands up to a hundred kilometers across half-fill the gulf as it bends northeast and opens to Mariner Sound, the largest unbroken body of water in the complex. To the west, through a cliff-lined strait, stretches the Ganges Gulf, another hundred kilometers of open water. It's worth noting that the currents in all these fjords run south and west--inland! Like the Mediterranean, these sunny waters evaporate quickly, while the rains they generate mostly feed north-flowing rivers; the Mariner canyons return only a fraction. So the sounds refill with water pouring in from the North Sea.

Orbital photo of a terraformed Mars 1000 years from now: Ganges Gulf, Mariner Sound, the Chaos.
Kim Stanley Robinson describes this region as the most Earthlike part of Mars--green and (relatively) warm. I've depicted it as a bit drier--yes, Chryse Bay and even (occasionally) Argyre to the south could send rain over these lands, but to the east is 6000 km of dry land, and to the west is Tharsis, whose heights wring all moisture from the winds that make it over the great wall. On the other hand, maybe I'm wrong: the mesas and cliffs lining the sounds cause powerful updrafts, so thunderstorms are likely. Whether the forests and meadows are wet or dry, the middle Mariner sounds will be spectacular, with warm sun, blue gulfs and immense red cliffs, still over a mile high in many places.

Map of Mars. Click a feature to go there.
Index of Martian place names. Or for a tour, the following route snakes around Mars, covering all major features:


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