The Geology of Skyrim: Project Impossible?

So I was touring the (video gaming) world of Skyrim again recently and discovered the area just south of Lake Yorgrim was particularly interesting with prolific hot springs. In Skyrim, Fallout and Red Dead Redemption I have also been particularly impressed with the simulated scenery. Bethesda should get a nod of approval from (extra) nerdy geologists of the world, and of course Rockstar.

It makes me wonder how exactly have they made these games with such great scenery? In Oblivion (the immediate prequel to Skyrim) the scenery was pretty dour, with much of the rocks and grasslands just the same set of pixels repeated until the horizon with little detail (and lots of pop-up). But Skyrim went further than just making the detail a little more interesting, they apparently made every area from scratch, putting an overwhelming amount of effort into the look of the game, and it paid off. I was impressed.

With the rise of Gamespot UK’s new franchise ‘The What If Machine’ exploring the extent to which science in video games is mirrored in real life, it is emphasised how much background research the makers of games must do to make them awesome. So, does this translate to how scenery is presented in games?

I was talking to one of the geology curators at the Natural History Museum recently who is an avid fan of the Elder Scrolls (of which the Skyrim game is a part of) and was amused to discover that he actually tried to make a mod (modification) for the game where you can become a geologist. As players of the game will know, you can mine ores in Skyrim, and if you subsequently visit a blacksmith you can use what you have mined to improve or make new weapons and armour. Take this a step further and you can make a mod to mine other minerals, be a geologist who looks at the landscape to decide where would be the best place to find iron/copper/gold/zinc and so on. Pretty cool, if you are a massive geek.

I also recently stumbled across a blog which had a post detailing the geology of Middle Earth. They had even made full geological maps and implied the kinds of tectonics that would have created the landmass. Wow.

It got me thinking: what if we could make a geological map of Skyrim?

If someone really wanted, I bet a mod could be made that turns this into an educational venture, where kids can play awesome role playing games where they fend off elder dragons, hunt for the lost Galdur amulet and (if they have no soul) then also submit to the Daedra god Molag Bal in order to get an awesome weapon (yes, I did get the weapon); while at the same time mapping the geological landscape and produce a working geological history of Tamriel (of which Skyrim is a province). Nice.

I think that this idea is totally workable as a real educational tool. The British Geological Society have recently released a couple of Apps for the iPhone/iPad, where you can find out what the geology is in your area, or the soil type under your feet. Now that is geology becoming up to date, so why not expand this further?

So, if anyone feels like this would be a fun waste of their time, knows if something similar has already been done or even how Bethesda went about making the scenery – then I would be happy to hear from you!

Geodiversity and A Sense of ‘Place’

Maybe it’s why I have such an attachment to Turner and van Dyck. Maybe it’s why I did geology. But it’s certainly why I want to work with natural heritage and the outdoors.
I have always had a strong sense of ‘place’ in the landscape. I was raised in a town in East Lothian, a beautiful area of Scotland with rolling hills, great Carboniferous geology and a strong sense of history in the archaeology of the area. I also spent a lot of time across Scotland looking at rocks in various place as well as visiting many castles and historic houses and gardens as a child with my mum. Later when studying geology at university we had at least one long field trip a year, many of which were to Scotland and all of which were to stunning areas of natural beauty. I think this helped develop a strong sense of ‘place’ in me, in completely natural and ‘untouched’ environments of which you find many in Scotland, and therefore remains somewhere I think I will always want to return to.
So it is no surprise that artists who paint landscapes make me feel so happy when I look at them. I can stare for ages at the scenes, a moment captured in time, which encapsulates parts of the natural and human landscape at the time, and implies that the people working the land are as intrinsic to it as the trees and the rivers that run through them. Interestingly enough, Geoscientist (the fellowship magazine of the Geological Society) also had an article this month that touched on the subject of painting the dynamic and geological landscapes of the 19th century. The article focuses on Thomas Moran, who was different from Turner or van Dyck in that he painted landscapes generally devoid of human interactions, focusing on the natural forces that shaped the landscape such as water and wind. It was also due to his personal interest in geology that made him delve into the realms of his artistic subject, and I think that oddly enough the interpretation of the natural forces in his paintings make the environments almost more surreal, and some have compared his paintings to Dante’s Inferno and his journey through hell. But don’t let this put anyone off who fancies a quick jaunt into the geological countryside! I think that in communicating the actions of natural forces in creating the landscape at that time – and still probably today – it gives the onlooker a sense of wonder and awe.

Geodiversity is extremely important. It describes the diversity within abiotic nature and gives it a name with which people can relate to the idea that it is important. Biodiversity is a ‘buzz’ word and wherever it is used people will automatically feel that this ‘place’ is to be conserved. What about the geology of the area? Not only the geology but the records of the geomorphological processes that have created the landscape we see today on top of which the archaeology produced by our ancestors has barely scraped the surface. Without this diversity we would not be able to live on this planet. It describes the beginning of the Earth and life on the planet; the massive processes that have formed our continents and oceans; the minerals, rocks and fossils that hold out mineral wealth in the form of ore and fossil fuel resources; the climates the planet endures many of which we have learned to thrive in such as rivers, coastal environments, glaciation, deserts and finally the record of continual processes like weathering and formation of soils.

We value these diverse materials, landforms and processes in many ways as the resources that the Earth’s geodiversity gives us is used in every aspect of life from manufacturing almost everything to art materials (and inspiration) to household goods like toothpaste, plaster and of course fuel. We therefore value these resources for their economic and functional purposes, and in tune with this for their research purposes – without research into these materials we would not have these resources to exploit and use in out daily lives. With research also comes education, we need to pass on our knowledge of these resources to future generations and hope that they can get even more information out of these than we previously have. We have already discussed how artists have used landscapes as inspiration for many works of art, but  the aesthetics of geodiversity can extend to tourism – many people travel from all over the world to climb mountains in Scotland and other areas across the world – but the landscape is also of importance to the people who live there all year round. As I began this piece, the landscape and ‘place’ of my area of Scotland is very important to me and holds lots of great memories of which the geology is an intrinsic part of them. Therefore we also associate with these areas cultural values, across the world there are geologically important sites that attract spiritual value to landscapes or forms such as Uluru in Australia or the North American Indians to areas of Central North America. This links with the history of the people who have been associated with the landscape through time, recorded in our history books as well as archaeological remains (as I mentioned are present in my local area too). People interact directly with the landscapes they are attached to and many like to collect pieces of their ‘place’ to keep with them at all times. I think all humans have minor cases of kleptomania, but some definitely more than others. People who collect part of our geodiversity do not have to assign meaning to the objects, and definitely do not have to alter the object in any way from the original state in which it was found. This makes geological collections very different from other collections in that they are still very much part of the landscape they came from when they have been in a collection for 100 years or 2.

In my personal collection, a lot of the specimens are from places I have been and collected them from in Scotland, making the majority of the collection Scottish and attached to that ‘place’. Some of the material has been bought or given to me by other collectors, but the main value to me is that I have personally found many of the specimens. Other famous collections and collectors have specific interests that can sometimes be related to a specific ‘place’ such as Arthur Russell’s collection held at the Natural History Museum in London (NHM). His collection represents Britain’s mineralogy and holds many of the best examples of British minerals. I am currently working with this collection and I always get more excited and awed when I remember that these amazing minerals are from where I live, or better still from somewhere I know and have been in Scotland. I recently got very over excited when I found a (not even particularly visually stunning) specimen that was from the area of my geology dissertation on the Isle of Skye and part of the metasomatic zone around the large granite intrusion of Beinn an Dubhaich at the centre of my area. Funnily enough, of all the visually stunning and historically important specimens I have held and worked with in his collection so far, that is the one I remember the most.

Some museums do capitalise on local collections, such as Wanlockhead Museum of Lead Mining in the Leadhills, Scotland which not only helps you discover the geology of the surrounding area (including getting down to do a bit of gold panning) but it also has the mine and the old miners homes open to the public to help visitors understand and connect to the entire history and culture of the area. As a child I visited Wanlockhead many times and always thoroughly enjoyed it. The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh houses a vast mineral collection, not much of which is now on display since the renovation and opening last summer. I know from discussion with the research curator of mineralogy there that the collections held, studied and continually collected are focused on Scottish material but this is not reflected well in the public displays of the museum. The museum’s public display focuses on educating the public about the formation of the Earth and the geological processes that have shaped it since then. The gallery is very good in my opinion and has some great specimens on display, but personally I feel that the museum is missing out on a fantastic opportunity to get people involved in what’s out in their back yards! Edinburgh especially has fantastic geology on its doorstep (Arthur’s Seat) and by simply connecting visitors with what’s right there in front of them could easily give them more inspiration to go out and learn more about it. I know from Russell’s collection at the NHM that Scotland has a wealth of beautiful and fascinating minerals and rocks out there – so why don’t we see them?

I can’t answer the question now, but I can’t help but feel that we could learn a lot from understanding the links between ‘place’ and geological collections better – and even between other ‘places’ and heritage collections. Is there anything to gain from better linking together collections with localities to benefit collection’s management, educational and scientific point of view? Lets hope someone finds out soon!

12 Top tips for doing your Geology Mapping Dissertation

As summer is around the corner and with it the holidays some may not be thinking of which adventure holiday they will go on next or trying to nag the ex boss for their job back. Some lucky people will be embarking on their 21 day minimum mapping dissertation field work. But don’t stress, sometimes there are serious casualties, and other times you just lose the will to live but other times it actually goes well and you can end up having a great time. Here are some top tips from me and my other ‘class of 2011’ friends’ for getting through that dreaded month.

No. 1: Don’t be a stranger

I think the major thing that got me through the highs and lows of my month on the Isle of Skye was the company. Five of us rented a house on Loch Eishort, as two were mapping the Sleat peninsula, two of us were around Beinn an Dubhaich and another one on the other shore of Loch Slapin. It was a lifesaver, and many a day did my friend and I sit in the car drinking coffee in the morning giving each other some mental motivation for the day. It may be to late to arrange to go with your fellow geologists, but failing that make sure you invite a friend/boyfriend/girlfriend up for a week or so to have something to look forward to. Or in the case of another friend of mine, get involved with the locals and enjoy some of their banter.

No. 2: Caffeine check

(And water) Never leave without your caffeine. Even if the day is sunny and warm and you don’t think you will need it – you will! Also, don’t forget water, and lots of it. You will be walking a lot, climbing and thinking (and drinking lots of coffee). It all catches up with you and you don’t want to be left walking home in the splintering heat (yes, we did get caught in the heat on the Isle of Skye and I paid for it!) with no water or food left.

No. 3: Take sensible days off

Don’t get tired or try to do it all too quickly, you will end up missing important details you will need later. Take days off and enjoy the scenery or the local tourist attractions. This will help when you go back into the field the next day. Additionally, it will stop you becoming tired in the field and having an accident such as falling in a gorge. I managed to fall in a gorge on the first day and had a close encounter with the chisel end of my hammer and my throat but still, if I hadn’t managed my time properly this could have happened at lot more, and not been so lucky.

No. 4: Check the map scales

This is important to know when you are drawing your cross sections, especially if you are in the midst of writing up, the work is getting to you and you are verging on delusional. Don’t forget that half your map is in feet and yards and the other is in metres. It causes a lot of mental confusion and a lot of redrawing. Trust me.

No. 5: Don’t procrastinate

It really pays off if you do the work quickly and efficiently and get stuck right in. You don’t want to end up taking up your entire three months of your summer holidays mapping, spending money on accommodation and travel and not having fun. It happens and usually is a result of lack of enthusiasm in the first place. Take a good playlist with you too, some good ol’ 80’s rock tunes really help. Our favourite was Whitesnake Here I go again. Have a listen and you will totally find the relevance:

No. 6: Take a moment and use your initiative

Sit down and look around, you will be surprised what comes to you.

No. 7: Back-up your map

Avoid the terrifying moments where the wind takes it off the cliff edge and your past three weeks of work is lost. Photograph it regularly and keep a track record of its progress. I would also recommend to write directly on the map in something that is permanent, and not on a substitute, noting grid references in your notebook or so lightly it might rub off. This wastes a lot of time later and you will forget exactly what was there or what you meant by ‘6105 9372 (6253 9384) sandy limey stuff – lumps of grey chertyness make it grey coloured’ obviously at a point where you had lost all enthusiasm. Is that meant to be grey coloured rock in real life, or the grey you used already for the granite in the East, what do you do now you obviously had some alter-colour scheme going when mapping a week ago…does this mean the rest of the map is wrong, was that actually meant to be granite then? And what does the grid reference in brackets mean?! You don’t need that stress. If you need to change things, have other blank copies of the map (that you will of course have printed out before you left for the field) and copy your exposures onto a new one and use your back record (from all those great photos of it). Note: an exposure is the small bit of exposed rock you see in the field, an outcrop is the full extent of the exposed lithology underground, and what you will be inferring after you have mapped all exposures. Some examiners take offense to interchangeable or outright wrong use of these terms in mapping. And use eight digit grid references, not six.

No. 8: Do the work as soon as you get home

Yes it hurts to think of carrying on after nine hours in the field but honestly it saves time in the long run. The information you need is fresh in your mind now and won’t be in a week or 2 months’ time. I would also recommend to draw simple sketch cross sections, at least keeping a note of the scale to check you aren’t missing something important like a fault that doesn’t go all the way through or folds that stop suddenly. Avoid inferring strike-slip faults where possible, unless the actual BGS maps show one. Something that big won’t have missed every geologist for the past few hundred years.

No. 9: Make good field notes

Record all of your thoughts and include informed speculations, these show your brain was working in the field and you were not just on autopilot, this is what the examiners will be looking for. Even if this means sitting for half an hour jotting down your thoughts and not getting moving with the mapping this could be extremely beneficial. Having calculated ideas of where and what to look for next will save you time in the field and get you extra marks.

No. 10: Take good samples (and a good hammer)

It is important to take samples of almost all of the rocks you come across, and of all the interesting little things you find within them. It will hurt later when you need to know more about something and you have no record of it – pictures sometimes just don’t hack it. In saying this, a good sketch can be key, as long as you make sure you highlight all the details you see that could be important later. Sed logs are fantastic for this, and really useful for later study. You can even do sed logs for igneous or metamorphic rocks, as there can be just as many interesting physical features here. Don’t settle for rock samples that have fallen off the main body of rock, they will generally be weathered and not good in thin section. This means you need a good, heavy hammer. My hammer was a proper geological one but couldn’t hack through a lot of the igneous rocks in my area, and so I was left with some rubbish samples.

No. 11: Look at the small details

Record everything, from the smallest augen to the angle a granite body intrudes at – it will be worth it when you figure out why you need that data when you are back in the lab.

No. 12: Enjoy it!

Make the good times count, it will really pay off when you get to day 17 of mapping and you need a little pick me up. Whether this comes in the form of a jigsaw, cards, some chick flick films, laughing at the sheep (or making friends with them, hell, they might be your only company for a month) or trying to hide from the other group of students who have invaded your land then think of the funny side and tell your friends when you get home.

Heritage Sites and Landscapes: A Conservation Enigma?

I have a question for you:

How can we conserve something that is constantly changing and evolving like a natural/historically important landscape or site?

The environment is constantly changing. Conserving something that has been made by nature by definition should mean conserving the process that made it and will continue to make and change the environment. Change IS heritage, it is because of change that we find these different societies and landscapes. So how do we begin to get around this conundrum?

Think of a cave system, carved in limestone from millions of years of water action – the percolating of slightly acidic water into a karst landscape that eventually forms massive underground warrens where stalactites and stalagmites grow, where the water creates layers of precipitated calcite on the floors in rivers of immobile minerals. The beauty of the place is astounding, and contains secrets we want to explore. The calcite rivers contain fragments of lost societies, the bones of animals they ate, the heads of their spears and ultimately the bones of the people themselves.

We can date these bones using carbon dating and also date the caves by looking at the limestone. What age were the tiny shelled organisms that made the rock, what layer do they chronologically fit into (where geographically do they sit in relation to the land and other rocks?). We can also use other forms of chemical dating such as uranium series dating to find out the age of the rock and the relative age of the bones encased inside it. What does this tell us? It gives us another insight into the history of not just our own archaeological heritage but also the long-term history that surrounds us. Just by knowing there is limestone around it is a good assumption to say that this areas was possibly once marine – we can tell whether it was deep or shallow marine (was it part of a delta or was it sea floor) from looking at the microscopic images of the limestone up close: the types of organisms that made it up and the minute grain chemistry. Are the grains pure carbonate material or is there silicate there? If so, why and when did it form? Was the cement between the grains precipitated while the sediment was being formed or was it something that happened much later in the rock’s history? What can these facts tell us about the environment that it was made in and can it also tell us how that environment changed through time? You bet it can. The questions go on and on…and each one helps us build up a picture of a much longer and more detailed history of the area, not just when or why humans might have used it relatively recently (geologically speaking).

So, back to the question. The landscape has changed drastically since the formation of the Earth. When it really comes down to it what are we trying to do? Capture a single moment in history and preserve it? To really do this you are looking at shutting off the water supplies, eradicating the wind and putting the area in an air-tight container to stop oxygen reaching with the environment. And then, well, who is to say that even at this extent that  you will have completely stopped any change? So we have to come up with some sort of happy medium. Um…

First off, what is is that we really value about the landscape? Understanding what current humans value about something begins to help us understand what parts of it we want to conserve. But because this is an evolving landscape, then isn’t it even more likely that values will change? Or is it? A crucial point that heritage scientists need to consider is what will people value in the future? Things change, including fashion, trends, politics and the change is reflected in everything we do. Scientific research will be carried out where the money is, which is where the interest is by the funding bodies which is almost certainly governed by global trends. Predicting this is difficult, but there are ways to try for example: what questions do you have now about a site/landscape/collection/object that cannot be answered by current technology? Collections in museums can be influenced by these types of ‘future’ values by asking such questions. Maybe the Association of Professional Futurists or the Centre for the Future of Museums will have some more interesting answers – they recently carried out a project asking people to identify trends or events that they see as possibly a turning point in the future of museums and writers were then asked to put these into context in a story.

Maybe when it comes to something like a landscape the best way to conserve it is to change with it. To understand and respect the nature of the land and conserve the change itself. If it is a changing and eroding coastline then generate ideas of ways in which to evolve with it, how can we build sustainable towns in this area? Make people understand that something that they see now may not be here in 20 years time, but that this is not something to feel sad about but something to evolve alongside. We can help record and cherish what we see now so that future generations can see what it was like and also value the change that they then see: build up a chronological sequence of a landscape for others to enjoy, for example.

“An outstanding example representing major stages of the Earth’s history, including the record of life, significant ongoing geological processes in the development of landforms, and significant geomorphic or physiographic features.”This is the statement that UNESCO designated the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site (WHS) as back in 2001. As you can see the WHS values the ‘ongoing’ nature of the processes at the site and this is something that is to be cherished and conserved in itself. The Jurassic Coast has several threats to the conservation of the site, but has a great management strategy in place:

“Our vision is that World Heritage status will inspire people to celebrate, enjoy, value and learn about the Dorset and East Devon Coast, and to safeguard it for future generations in the best possible condition. We wish to ensure World Heritage status becomes a vibrant strand of the life of Dorset and East Devon, and the wider south-west, benefitting local people, visitors and the environment throughout the area.” Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site Management Plan 2009-2014. The 8 point plan is a great example of enabling the landscape to continue in its natural evolutionary journey, extending sustainable access and support to communities and helping them generate greater understanding and appreciation of the science, nature and value associated with their heritage.

For me a basic understanding of the natural environment for everyone is crucial. If we help people to understand a landscape and the nature of change then it should be easier to help preserve it in any way that we can. If preservation involves keeping people away from a certain area I feel that this defeats the purpose of the heritage site even being there, what is the point is we cannot learn from it? People need to see and understand and value something before they can consider caring for it. I think that the best way to understand value is to ask the people involved with it on a local, national and global scale. From there we can see a range of generations and geographical locations of value which could give us a good idea of the future values too. Then we can engage these people with the environment and the concept of continual change, which makes it so beautiful.

World Heritage Day (The Importance of Our Outdoor Geological Heritage)

For world heritage day (18th April 2012) UCL Bartlett’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage created a blog with what a number of MSc Sustainable Heritage and MRes Heritage Science students felt ‘sustainable heritage’ meant to them: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/category/world-heritage-day/

I was also asked to write a piece for this blog (http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/2012/04/18/heritage-scotland/), so I tackled my view of sustainable heritage, with a twist:

When someone says ‘heritage’ what does it mean to you?

I would be willing to guarantee that the above image is not what first springs to mind, but for me it is. This is a picture of columnar basalts from the Isle of Mull in Scotland, a photo I took on one of my field trips while studying geology as an undergraduate. The concept of heritage may at first seem far flung from this image of cooled molten lava but I would like to demonstrate the ties between these disciplines and why we need to ensure that this, too, is part of our sustainable heritage.

As a geology student, you are primarily taught about the scientific importance of these sites for education, however equally crucial are the links to the people, places and accomplishments associated with these sites. Many of these have been vital to the evolution of science and without them we would not have been able to make many of the technological and scientific advancements we have today.

Take Siccar Point in Berwickshire, Scotland as an example. This location was of seminal importance and built the foundation for evolutionary and geological science as we know today. It was here where James Hutton (often referred to as ‘the father of modern geology’) discovered ‘deep time’. At this site in 1788 Hutton noticed an odd sequence of rocks that proved the need for unfathomable amounts of time and forces to erode the layers and rotate them by 90° from their original position.

Our understanding of the several thousand million year history of the Earth in contrast to the religious standards of the time revolutionised our view of the world and the sciences.

It is my opinion that this site is an intrinsic part of our national, and global heritage. There are lots of areas similar to this across the world, many of which are in the UK with a significant set of the geological periods named after British ‘type’ localities.

Sustainable heritage should not only encompass the physical preservation of an object or historically important locality, but the preservation of the knowledge that it has entreated us with. In the case of Hutton’s Unconformity, along with many other natural landscapes, access to and preservation of the site is difficult. What we can do however is to ensure that we sustain the knowledge associated with that locality through a range of media, to make it permanently available for future generations to be continually inspired and educated.

Rockwatch: Exploring the Geomorphology of the Martian Surface

[6]

Below is a piece I wrote published in Rockwatch (the club for young geologists run by the Geologists Association) in 2011/12, Issue 59, page 12: http://www.rockwatch.org.uk/magazine.html

Jane Robb, several times a Rockstar competition winner, has graduated and is now a professional geologist. Here she explains some of the features of the planet that is most like ours – Mars.

Think of the Earth.

Think of its colours, continents, massive deep blue oceans and the rivers that feed them. The images of our ‘blue planet’ that we see in our minds conjure up thoughts of life and vast, thriving ecosystems.

Now think of Mars, our neighbouring ‘red planet’. What do you see?

I see a planet once covered by vast oceans, scoured by winds and sculpted by volcanoes.

Early observers of Mars such as Percival Lowell, once thought that the features on Mars’ surface were artificial canals built to tap the drying planet’s polar ice caps. His perceptions, although wrong, fuelled new efforts to discover more of the Solar System’s fascinating secrets.

Since then, we have evidence of natural channelling across large areas of Mars’ surface. The landscapes they form are often referred to as ‘chaotic terrain’, with steep sided troughs and slumping of channel walls. These features could be the result of removal of underground material from release of water and ice pressure from microscopic holes inside the rocks. They are not thought to be from long term flow of liquid water as they are several times the size of similar channels on Earth. The image adjacent [1] [1]shows what is referred to as a ‘starburst spider’ from its shape. It is thought to be formed from CO2 (carbon dioxide) gas and rock dust escaping from underground through an opening at the surface and spreading out in a fan shape. Other features can be seen, caused by the movement of liquid water under the surface of Mars, called sapping, that have since collapsed in on themselves forming the channels we see today.

Across the surface of Mars features termed ‘sinuous ridges’ can be found that are 100’s of kilometres in length and 100’s of metres wide. These ridges can be thought of as river ‘trace fossils’. Imagine a fast flowing river in which lots of sediment is deposited on the river bed, including large boulders. Eventually, the river dries up and millions of years of erosion go by. Next to the river are soft sediments like clays and muds, while inside the river are sands and boulders. The clays and muds erode away faster than the river, so that the old river bed is now a long hill, just like a country scale trace fossil! The same ridges can also form from lava flows!

Mars is also home to the largest volcano in the entire Solar System at 27,000m high – Olympus Mons. Mars has not been visibly active in our lifetimes, although it is assumed that there has been recent volcanic activity (geologically speaking!). The main form of volcanism is basaltic, but more gas accumulates in the lava than expected due to a lack of atmospheric pressure. This means that normally runny magmas on Earth can erupt violently on Mars. The lack of gravity also means that magmas are less buoyant (do not float), so they stay in the mantle for longer in large magma chambers. So, when the magma eventually gets hot enough to escape, the eruptions last much longer with larger volumes of lava. Therefore, with larger eruptions, Mars can build larger volcanoes!

‘Fretted terrains’ form at a break in the surface such as a fault or crater, whose edges have eroded to form smooth, flat lowlands. The material removed from the edges does not seem to show evidence of fluvial (water) erosion, so it could have been transported by aeolian (wind) erosion. Vast expanses of Mars’ surface have been altered by wind erosion, like these dune fields [3], and after initial large scale fluvial, tectonic or igneous activity [4][4].

Images [5] and [6] show some more beautiful scenes of the Martian landscape. The layers seen in [5] [5]are opal (silica, SiO2) and iron sulphate (FeSO4). These are formed from aqueous alteration (water erosion) of basalt lavas. There is substantial evidence for large volumes of liquid water on the surface of Mars at least early in its history, around 3.5 to 4 billion years ago. At present, only a fraction of that water remains trapped in polar ice caps, indicating that at one point Mars was warmer and wetter than at present. In [6][6], an ancient delta in a crater that once held a lake can be seen. The enhanced colours show clay minerals (in green) which are known to trap and preserve organic matter on Earth.

Now, the chemical and geomorphological evidence in favour of vast volumes of liquid water in early Martian history, at least some of which remains today, points scientists in the direction of the crucial question: ‘Is there life on Mars?’.

“Are they worlds, or are they merely masses of matter? Are physical forces alone at work there or has evolution begotten something more complex, something not unakin to what we know on Earth as life? It is in this that lies the peculiar interest of Mars.” Percival Lowell.

Images from:

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mars/images/image-collection_archive_1.html