Grand Canyons of Earth and Mars

November 26, 2019
CreditNASA/Solar System Treks
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NASA's Solar System Trek team uses real data to creative flyovers of Valles Marineris on Mars and the Grand Canyon on Earth.


The Grand Canyon is a unique and spectacular land form. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else on Earth.

But if we cast our gaze to distant horizons, we can find another similarly amazing location. The planet Mars has its own Grand Canyon, Valles Marineris.

And it is interesting to compare Mars' canyon with ours.

The full sweep of the grandeur of Earth's Grand Canyon can be seen very well by looking down from space.

Here we see the Canyon's winding paths stretching from Lake Powell in the east to Lake Meade in the west.

Similarly in this view from NASA's Viking Orbiter, we can see Valles Marineris reaching across vast stretches of the Martian terrain.

Earth's Grand Canyon is actually a large network of interconnecting canyons. The same can be said for Valles Marineris on Mars.

The deep cut and steep walls of the Grand Canyon expose many layers of geological deposits reaching way back into time. Similarly, Valles Marineris displays numerous layers including lake floor sedimentary deposits laid down in Mars' distant watery past.

The deep cut made by the Colorado River has been significantly widened by numerous landslides along the Grand Canyon's steep walls. Surprise Valley is nearly filled with debris from the largest landslide deposit in the Grand Canyon containing over a cubic mile of displaced material. Nearby, Deer Creek is cutting a new gorge as it bypasses landslide blockage.

Zooming down toward Eus Labos in Valles Marineris we see a titanic landslide deposit measuring over 30 miles across and stretching 25 miles out across the floor of the valley.

In places along the northwestern edge of the Grand Canyon we find volcanic cinder cones from which flows of lava cascaded over the canyon walls into the gorge of the Colorado River. These flows built temporary dams that created lakes that partially filled the canyon in its past.

To the northwest of Valles Marineris we also find volcanoes, the giant Tharsis Shield Volcanoes which played key roles in the formation of the canyon. These mountains include Olympus Mons, the greatest volcano in the solar system standing three times the height of Mt.Everest and with a base 370 miles across.

Flowing water played a critical role in the Grand Canyon's formation with the Colorado River cutting the canyon's deep gorge. Flowing water also played a role in Valles Marineris.

This color coded height map shows where channels of water flowed out of the canyon into a great bay.

While they have many similarities, the two canyons also have significant differences.

The Grand Canyon was formed primarily by erosion through the cutting power of the Colorado River. While water altered the landscape of Valles Marineris, this feature is far too big to have been cut by water. It is a great tectonic fracture of the planet's crust.

Size is another key difference between the two canyons. Valles Marineris is far larger. If it were on Earth, it could stretch from the U.S.'s East Coast to West Coast with many of its smaller sub-canyons still dwarfing our Grand Canyon.

Another difference is that Earth's Grand Canyon now hosts over six million visitors per year. Valles Marineris is still waiting to receive its first tourists.

Perhaps you will be one of them.