Observations and modeling of northern mid-latitude recurring slope lineae (RSL) suggest recharge by a present-day martian briny aquifer
Stillman et al
Recurring slope lineae (RSL) are narrow (0.5–5 m) dark features on Mars that incrementally lengthen down steep slopes, fade in colder seasons, and recur annually. These features have been identified from the northern to southern mid-latitudes. Here, we describe how observations of northern mid-latitude RSL in northern Chryse Planitia and southwestern Acidalia Planitia (CAP) suggest that brines start flowing before northern spring equinox and continue for more than half a Mars-year (490 ± 40 sols, spanning solar longitude 337° ± 11°–224° ± 20°). All CAP RSL are found on the steep slopes of craters and their source zones are at or below the elevation of the surrounding plains. Spacecraft-derived surface temperature observations cannot resolve individual RSL, so thermal modeling was used to determine that CAP RSL have a freezing temperature of 238–252 K, freeze and melt diurnally, and flow only occurs within the top ∼8 cm of the regolith. Furthermore, we calculate that a typical CAP RSL has a water budget of 1.5–5.6 m3/m of headwall. Therefore, such a large water budget makes annual recharge via atmospheric or subsurface diffusion sources unlikely. Alternatively, we hypothesize that the most plausible RSL source is a briny aquifer with a freezing temperature less than or equal to the mean annual CAP surface temperature (220–225 K). The annual cycle is as follows: in late autumn, the shallowest part of the brine feeding the source zone freezes, forming an ice dam. As spring approaches, temperatures rise and the dam is breached. Brine is discharged and the RSL initially lengthens rapidly (greater than 1.86 m/sol), the lengthening rate then slows considerably, to ∼0.25 m/sol. Eventually, the losses equal the discharge rate and the RSL reaches its equilibrium phase. As brine flows in the RSL some of the water is lost to the atmosphere, therefore the freezing temperature of the brine within the RSL is higher (238–252 K) as the brine transitions to a super-eutectic salt concentration. In the late autumn, falling temperatures restore the ice dam and the H2O in the RSL slowly sublimates away. Overall, CAP RSL possess a significantly different seasonality and much longer duration than typical southern mid-latitude RSL, suggesting that RSL at different latitude bands have different source types. Lastly, CAP RSL are the best evidence that shallow groundwater may still exist on Mars.