By Tara Laskowski
If you can’t travel to another planet to examine geological phenomena, then the next best thing is to use your own planet. Planetary geologists, such as Douglas Howard, use the Earth as their prototype—comparing similar landscape features on our planet with those on places such as Mars.
In the case of the jökulhlaup, Howard, who was a postdoctoral fellow in Mars research at the University of Tennessee, has used this mega flood as an Earth analog to compare it with the Aram Chaos outburst channel, a specific river channel that flowed from the Aram Chaos crater on Mars.
The channel looked like a former river valley that had flooded, but the features of the landscape called for a much larger source of water than there appeared to be.
By applying the model he developed for Earth and changing it slightly to account for the different level of gravity on Mars, Howard was able to prove that groundwater likely contributed to the surface water source.
“There’s very little vegetation in Iceland, and the landscape is quite similar to Mars, although fluvial geomorphological features on Mars are much larger,” says Howard. “Still, this is possibly the best analog to apply to Mars, and we’ve found spectacular results with our models.”
Howard has traveled to Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington to model other floods. In summer 2010, he continued the work he started at Mason by traveling to Siberia to study a series of mega floods that happened between 45,000 and 13,000 years ago.
“It’s really fascinating and gratifying to be able to apply our knowledge of our own planet to other planets,” says Howard. “It just brings us one step closer to understanding more about the universe.”