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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: July 2010

5 - Antarctic McMurdo Dry Valley stream ecosystems as analog to fluvial systems on Mars



The stream systems of the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica represent a relatively simple end member of terrestrial hydrologic systems. Many Dry Valley streams are prominent landscape features, especially in summer when they carry glacial meltwater from the alpine and outlet glaciers to the perennially ice-covered lakes on the valley floors (Fig. 5.1). Observations beginning in 1968 indicate that these channels carry water for 8–12 weeks each year, though some are only wetted in warm, high flow years, and others have been deactivated because of changes to flow routing. In addition to obvious channels incised in the landscape, smaller, less frequent fluvial features may become active in the Dry Valleys, such as small rivulets (shallow, broad gullies that are not wetted annually) carrying snowmelt or meltwater from buried ice down steep valley walls in particularly warm summers. Although these fluvial systems are relatively unique on Earth, the surface of Mars holds evidence of ancient fluvial features that are similar to snowmelt rivulets observed in the Dry Valleys.

In this chapter, we compare the contemporary status and function of streams of the Dry Valleys with those that may have existed on ancient Mars. Our current understanding of martian fluvial processes is limited to what can be inferred by the “leftover” drainages that are readily observed, some of which are quite large.

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Life in Antarctic Deserts and other Cold Dry Environments
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