Krzysztof Dębniak

Research topics

Valles Marineris geomorphologic mapping

Valles Marineris geomorphologic mapping


Why is Valles Marineris so important to us and what do we do with it?

Fig. 1 Mosaic of Valles Marineris images, Viking mission

Valles Marineris is the canyon system situated in the Tharsis Plateau region, south of the martian equator. It is the biggest trough structure in the Solar System – its wall heights are up to 11 km, system length exceeds 4000 km and canyons occupy area of 650 km x 2000 km. Valles Marineris is composed of elongated, deep, steep-sided depressions called chasmata (singular: chasma). Most of chasmata are incorporated into the system of interconnected troughs (eastward: Tithonium and Ius, Ophir, Candor and Melas, Coprates Chasmata; Eos, Capri and Ganges Chasmata), which constitutes the main part of Valles Marineris (9; 11). On the contrary, three remaining chasmata (i.e. Echus, Hebes and Juventae), localized hundreds of kilometers north of the system substance, are separated from the main part by plateau. The system continues westward in Noctis Labirynthus (eng. The Labyrinth of the Night) which is a structure composed of grabens originated in tectonic processes. In addition chasmata switch eastward and northward to water-related landforms – east of Eos Chasma enigmatic drainage channels are present, whereas Echus Chasma northward evolves into vast outflow channels of Kasei Valles (13; 16; 17; 18).

Fig. 2 Elevation map of Valles Marineris region

The canyon name originates from the American robotic interplanetary probes Mariner sent into interplanetary space in 1962-1973 to investigate terrestrial planets – Mercury, Venus and Mars. Mariner 9 took the first photography of Valles Marineris in 1971 revealing the structure which constitutes the subject of presenting researches (6).

Fig. 3 Valles Marineris first image, Mariner 9, 1971

Processes responsible for Valles Marineris origin and evolution are complex and enigmatic. According to hypotheses, canyon development was related to magmatic and ryfting events, caused by dyke intrusion and mantle plume growth connected with central uplift, as well as flexure, volcanism and outflow channel activity (5). Subsequent chasmata changes comprise of mechanical erosion, landsliding and debris flows, water flow activity, gigantic flood events and lacustrine sedimentation, settling of dust in thick layers, glaciations and episodic meteorite impacts (7). Theretofore the range of processes shaping Valles Marineris throughout its entire history is striking and impressive.

Fig. 4 Layered igneous rocks in Coprates Chasma

Taking a closer look into the Valles Marineris birth it is worth to notice the configuration of its structures, which spread radially from the central part of the Tharsis volcanic assemblage. The main reason of their origin seems to be a fault spreading related to the evolution of the Tharsis radial pattern of fractures. There are two possible mechanisms responsible for the radial pattern creation. According to the first theory, fractures originate in the extensive lava accumulation on the surface, inducing tensions in the martian crust. The second hypothesis is based on the crust discontinuity emerging in the initial phase of plate tectonics processes, which are linked with the mantle plume origin. Faults were subsequently broadened due to tectonic processes and erosion, including water activity (6, 11).

Fig. 5 Geological units of southern Melas Chasma

Valles Marineris is an incision in the largest volcanic dome of the Solar System. Thanks to the incredible depth of canyons, the complexity of geological processes started on Mars over 4 bln years ago can be revealed in the chasma’s walls. Perfect examples of these processes are preserved in rock layers discovered during the Mars Global Surveyor mission (6). They have been interpreted as individual lava layers, which aid in determining the intensity and age of volcanic events in the past of Mars (there is probably no magmatic activity at present). However wall rock material is not the only one bearing layering strata – Interior Layer Deposits (ILDs) occupy canyon floors in the form of loose or weakly consolidated material of volcanic, eolian or lacustrine origin (3). The sediments were deposited during the Hesperian Era (3,7-3,0 bln years ago) (1), probably in aqueous environment inferred from the high content of sulfates. Plausible lakes, filling the Valles Marineris troughs over 3 bln years ago, contained significant Mg, Ca, Fe and SO4 concentrations causing the sulfate precipitation and evaporite formation (3). Therefore the essence of Valles Marineris history has been reached – water and ice repeatedly participated in processes carving and changing chasma’s walls and floors.

Fig. 6 Geomorphological landforms related to water flow and ice, Ganges Chasma

Hesperian structural complex described above was plausibly the perfect passage for surface water and groundwater flows. One of plausible sequence of flow events is as follows. The groundwater recharge area was located in the elevated Tharsis region, where water was channeled into Noctis Labirynthus. Subsequent water flow was directed through Ius, Melas and Coprates Chasmata, forming lakes inside these troughs. When the water level in the basins reached the overflow point, catastrophic flood event(s) took place first in Eos and Capri Chasmata, and after – in lowland areas of Aurorae Chaos and Hydraotes Chaos. The ultimate flow pattern leaded water in outflow channels of Simud and Tiu Valles into Chryse Planitia, which at that time was an oceanic basin. Chryse Planitia was also a discharge area for other martian rivers, including Kasei Valles beginning in Echus Chasma and Maja Valles starting in Juventae Chasma. The genesis of all mentioned river valleys includes episodic presence of ground ice (2). The water and/or ice existence in Valles Marineris has been proven in many features and landforms, including widespread sulfate deposits (10), alluvial fans in Melas Chasma (15), longitudinal grooves and cataracts in eastern chasmata (14), gullies in canyon walls created by water flowing from surrounding plateau (4), as well as features related to glaciers and periglacial conditions – thermokarst, debris aprons and polygons (8; 12).


The main purpose of my work is to create a geomorphologic map of the western part of Valles Marineris (Fig. 7). In addition, I am preparing a synthesis of the geological history of the entire trough complex on the basis of previous studies and my current findings.

Fig. 7 Geomorphological map of Ius Chasma (status in January 2015)

Valles Marineris extends over 650 km x 2000 km in the equatorial part of Mars. Internal trough landforms inform on 4 Gy of Mars’ history, recording a broad range of magmatic, tectonic, fluvial, lacustrine, glacial, eolian, and gravitational processes. The investigated area includes Ius, Tithonium and western Melas chasmata, where trough contours, landslide scarps and main geomorphological bodies, ILDs, dune areas, sapping channels, spur and gullies, floor features, and different wall types are mapped.


The background mosaic was created on the basis of 100 Context Camera (CTX) images obtained by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The image processing has been fulfilled using the ISIS Planetary Image Processing Software, including five sub-programmes: mroctx2isis, spiceinit, ctxcal, ctxevenodd, cam2map and isis2std. The images have become georeferenced, radiometrically calibrated, devoid of dead pixels, and projected. During these changes the image resolution was decreased from 6 to 12 m/pixel. In order to enable ISIS software to match file size limitations for the mosacing process (indicated in brackets), the image collection was divided into three smaller sets (western, central and eastern). Each set was adjusted by tone matching equalizer and mosaic creating automos (12 GB), and eventually converted to PNG file in isis2std (2 GB). Additionally, MRO HiRISE images, Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) MOLA altimeter datasets and MGS Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) images were also used for interpretation.


During the past year, I have mapped a number of geologic and geomorphologic features, i.e. dune areas (Ʃ >10 000), craters (Ʃ >5000), sapping channels (rocky wall top, main slope, floor), pit chains, walls of spur-and-gully morphology, large landslide scarps, collapsed rocks of landslides (8 types), lonely buttes, small landslides, collapsed walls, boulders, lobate landforms, tongue-shaped landform, valley infill, spur crests on walls (Ʃ 12 439 km), chasma contours (Ʃ 8866 km), periglacial floor landforms, evaporate-like floor areas, and other floor features.


Dune areas cover a significant part of chasma floor, but they are not a homogeneous unit. Valles Marineris dunes are characterized by different: type (barchans, transverse dunes, longitudinal dunes), lithology (bright and dark dunes), exposure size of single dune area (from ~100 m2 to ~100 km2), and sand source. Among 20 largest dune fields on the Ius Chasma floor, the average dune spacing (measured between crests) is 50 m and the predominant facing direction of dune slopes is W-E. These transverse and longitudinal dunes are built of sand from intra-chasma main sources (landslides, walls) and secondary sources (interior layered deposits (ILDs), floors and craters). Dunes originated in landslides dominate in the northern trough, whereas wall-related dunes are widespread in the entire chasma. Floor source is a stratigraphically homogeneous unit observed in the southern Ius trough, probably of detrital origin, in which dunes occupy erosional hollows. Crater dune fields are rare.


Analysis of spur and gully morphology has revealed three chasma wall types: active (with a visible evidence of modern sediment transport; common), inactive (with a lack of transport; rare) and grooved (displaying up to 100-meter wide shallow flat-floored linear grooves parallel or oblique to the local slope; common on the central Ius inner ridge). The grooves might result from a creeping process of viscous surface material.


Glacial and periglacial landforms were determined in the western part of Ius Chasma. The area consists of three regions: moraine area, till plain, and outwash plain, localized in accordance with the floor inclination.


Sapping channel systems are present mostly in the southern part of Ius Chasma. They are characterized by different length (14-150 km), area (47-2270 km2), sinuosity (1,0-1,2), number of branches (1-20), and maturity (number of collapsed walls inside). In one system, tongue-shaped flowing feature (probably periglacial) was determined.

Systematic high-resolution mapping in Valles Marineris is revealing geomorphologic features and processes that had not been recognized before. I will present full mapping results in June 2015.


  1. Carr M. H., Head III J. H., 2010, Geologic history of Mars, [in:] Earth and Planetary Science Letters, vol. 294, p. 185-203;

  2. Coleman N. M., Baker V. R., 2009, Surface morphology and origin of outflow channels in the Valles Marineris Region, [in:] Burr D. M., Carling P. A., Baker V. R., 2009, Megaflooding on Earth and Mars, p. 172-193;

  3. Deit Le L., Mouélic Le S., Bourgeois O., Combe J.-P., Mège D., Sotin C., Gendrin A., Hauber E., Mangold N., Bibring J.-P., 2008, Ferric Oxides in East Candor Chasma, Valles Marineris (Mars) inferred from analysis of OMEGA/Mars Express Data: identification and geological interpretation, [in:] Journal of Geophysical Research, vol. 113, E07001, doi: 10.1029/2007JE002950;

  4. Faure G., Mensing T. M., 2007, Mars: the little planet that could, [in:] Introduction to planetary science, p. 211-259;

  5. Fortezzo C. M., Platz T., Michael G., Robbins S., 2012, Geologic history of Valles Marineris, Mars, Revisited, [in:] 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, Houston, Texas, no. 2821;

  6. Hartman W. K., 2003, A traveler’s guide to Mars;

  7. Kargel J. S., 2004, Mars – a warmer, wetter planet, p. 51-59;

  8. Masson P., Carr M. H., Costard F., Greeley R., Hauber E., Jaumann R., 2001, Geomorphologic evidence for liquid water, [in:] Space Science Reviews, vol. 96, p. 333-364;

  9. Mège D., Bourgeois O., 2011, Equatorial glaciations on Mars revealed by gravitational collapse of Valles Marineris wallslopes, [in:] Earth and Planetary Science Letters, vol. 310, p. 182-191;

  10. Murchie S. L., Johnson J. R., Seelos F. P., 2012, MRO/CRISM observations on Interior Layered Deposits of Tithonium Chasma, Mars, [in:] 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, Houston, Texas, no. 1553;

  11. Peulvast J.-P., Mège D., Chiciak J., Costard F., Masson P. L., 2001, Morphology, evolution and tectonics of Valles Marineris wallslopes (Mars), [in:] Geomorphology, vol. 37, p. 329-352;

  12. Rossi A. P., Komatsu G., Kargel J. S., 2000, Rock glacier-like landforms in Valles Marineris, Mars, [in:] 31st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, Houston, Texas, no. 1587;

  13. Scott D. H., Tanaka K. L., 1986, Geologic map of the western equatorial region of Mars;

  14. Warner N. H., Sowe M., Gupta S., Dumke A., Goddard K., 2012, Connecting Valles Marineris to the Northern Plains: linkage by lake overspill and catastrophic flooding, [in:] 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, Houston, Texas, no. 1237;

  15. Weitz C. M., Williams R., Noe Dobrea E., Baldridge A., 2012, Hydrated minerals and fluvial features in and around the Melas Chasma Basin, [in:] 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, Houston, Texas, no. 2304;

  16. (Noctis Labirynthus)

  17. (Kasei Valles)

  18. (Eos Chasma)



2012 – present: PhD student in Planetary Geology
> Polish Academy of Sciences
> Institute of Geological Sciences, Research Centre in Wrocław
> Research topic: A geological synthesis of Valles Marineris

2009 – 2011: Master in Geology
> University of Wrocław
> Faculty of Earth Science and Environmental Management
> Majoring in Hydrogeology
> Thesis: The role of carbonate rocks in water circulation: example of catchment area of Jaskiniec stream

2008 – 2010: Master in Oceanography
> University of Gdańsk
> Faculty of Oceanography and Geography
> Majoring in Marine Geology
> Thesis: Gas hydrates – a future energy resource

2005 – 2008: Bachelor in Oceanography
> University of Gdańsk
> Faculty of Biology, Geography and Oceanology
> Majoring in Marine Geology


January – July 2012: Junior Geological Specialist
> Polish Geological Institute, National Research Institute – Department of Marine Geology, Gdańsk, Poland;
> Responsible for geochemical laboratory tasks, sediment core samplings, sedimentary analyses and a database administration of the Mountains Landslides Database.

September – November 2011: Assistant in field research in engineering geology
> Pracownia Geologiczna “Mr. Geo”, Gdańsk, Poland;
> Responsible for percussion drilling, characterizing soil properties with the use of an impact penetrometer, geohazard assessment.

August – October 2010: Cartography and GIS apprentice
> Winterresie e.U., Rum near Innsbruck, Austria;
> Responsible for the creation of vector maps using MapEditor programme; my tasks included working with satellite images, archives, digital data bases and other cartographical papers.

July 2008: Summer camp educator
> Harctur Gdańsk, Poland.

April 2007: Volunteer
> European Cetacean Society’s International Conference, San Sebastian, Spain;
> Voluntary work for the 21st Annual Conference; the job entailed working on the preparations and successful course of the conference.


2011: Workshops: Pomeranian Platform of Innovative Science-Industry Cooperation – Projects management, Effective applying for investigational grants, Writing scientific papers, Modern presentations; Gdynia, Poland.

2008: Course for summer camp educators, Słupsk, Poland.

2008: Training workshops: Photography and film in underwater nature documentation, organized by: Department of Marine Biology and Ecology, Institute of Oceanography, University of Gdańsk.


May 2012: Presentation entitled Gas hydrates – a future energy resource given during the Fourth Symposium of the Sopot’s Youth Forum, which was organized by the Institute of Oceanology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. I was awarded the prize for best natural science’s presentation.


September 2012: Tatra Mountains, Poland – measurements of deep-seated gravitational features as analogues of Martian sackungs.

November 2009 – December 2010: Złote Mountains, Poland – spring and stream hydrometric measurements, water physical and chemical variables measurements, water samplings.

May 2009: Aland Islands, Finland – rapakivi granite samplings, photos acquisition designated for the Pleistocene glaciers movement database.

May 2008: Rügen, Germany – a chalk cliffs sampling (co-organizer; author of the article Wszechoceanu badacze nieprzypadkowi / Non-accidental researchers of the World Ocean, [in:] Gazeta Uniwersytecka, June 2008, No. 6, Vol. 99, p. 14-16; author of the summarizing presentation during the Institute of Oceanography seminar session).

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