Tour New Mexico's volcanic badlands (with captions)

Planetary scientists are using a volcanic flow field in New Mexico to puzzle out how long past volcanic eruptions on Mars might have lasted, a finding that could help researchers determine if Mars was ever hospitable to life.

People don't usually think of New Mexico as a volcanically active place, but it has some of the youngest (geologically speaking) large lava flows in the continental United States.

Christopher Hamilton, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, has been studying one particular flow, the McCartys, for nearly 10 years. Hidden in plain sight along Route 66, the McCartys is part of a large volcanic flow field in New Mexico’s El Malpais National Monument that was erupted several thousand years ago. El Malpais, or the badlands, is so named for the desolate, rocky landscape it encompasses.

Hamilton and his colleagues are trying to understand how long it took for the McCartys flow field to be laid down, which will help them understand how past eruptions on Earth and Mars affected their planet’s ability to host life. How long a lava flow lasts helps determine an eruption’s effect on a planet’s habitability. Lavas erupted quickly over days or weeks can release a lot of gas into the atmosphere and potentially alter a planet’s climate. But lavas erupted slowly over years or decades can release heat into the ground, which can warm groundwater and generate hydrothermal systems that support exotic forms of microbial life.

As lava advances, it inflates, just like rising bread. As the outermost lava cools, it forms a crust scientists can measure. In a new study in AGU’s Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, Hamilton and his colleagues measured how thick the McCartys crust is to estimate how long it took for the lava to grow. The thicker the crust, the longer the eruption lasted.

The McCartys flow is huge, covering about 310 square kilometers (120 square miles). The 2018 eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano was tiny by comparison: at its end, the eruption had covered about 35 square kilometers (14 square miles) of land with lava.

To study such a large area, the researchers mounted cameras on kites and collected extremely detailed images from the air.

Combining the kite images with measurements from the ground, Hamilton and his team estimate that the southern branch of the McCartys was laid down over the course of about two years, but as a whole, the eruption could have lasted for over a decade.

Because the McCartys flow was erupted over a long period of time, the researchers suspect similar lava fields on Mars were also erupted slowly. They argue that the thick lava flows of Mars’s Hrad Vallis—in some places as tall as a 20-story office building—were laid down over several decades. These flows likely contained enough heat to have sustained hydrothermal systems hospitable to microbial life for hundreds to thousands of years, according to Hamilton.

The McCartys has attracted the interest of volcanologists for over a century, but it has many more secrets to tell about the geologic history of the Southwest and the search for life throughout the solar system.

Read more about this research

Read the original research paper

Imagery provided by:
Christopher Hamilton
NASA Scientific Visualization Studio
National Park Service
University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory

Music: TokyoStreet by Airtone

Special thanks:
National Park Service at El Malpais National Monument
Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Strategic University Research Project Program

Video produced by Lauren Lipuma at AGU.