DOI: 10.1130/ges02712.1 ISSN: 1553-040X

A global database of Mars-relevant hydrovolcanic environments on Earth with potential biosignature preservation

Catheryn H. Ryan, Mariek E. Schmidt, Gordon R. Osinski, Erica A. Massey
  • Stratigraphy
  • Geology

Basaltic hydrovolcanic environments on Earth produce abundant glass (sideromelane), which readily alters and acts as an important source of chemical energy for lithotrophic microorganisms; as such, these sites are significant for potential origins-of-life and early life research. Similar environments were identified on Mars and should be considered potential targets for astrobiological investigation. Pleistocene to recent phreatomagmatic and glaciovolcanic structures on Earth include tuff cones, tuff rings, maars, tuyas, and tindars. Such hydrovolcanic deposits contain abundant glass that is variably hydrothermally altered, and some areas contain published evidence of putative microbial habitation and microbially mediated alteration, including microtubules and granular alteration. We analyzed the literature on terrestrial hydrovolcanic environments and created a global database of 45 volcanic fields on Earth with compositions, alteration histories, and structures relevant to Mars. These sites have geochemistry, mineralogy, and syn- and post-eruptive environmental conditions that make them suitable targets for Mars-analogue astrobiological research. Relevant alteration products include palagonite, zeolites, clays, and calcite.

Seven of these sites have evidence of microbially mediated alteration, which could be considered a useful biosignature in a Mars-analogue context. The sites are Wells Gray–Clearwater Volcanic Field, Canada; Fort Rock Volcanic Field, Western Snake River Plain Volcanic Field, and Upsal Hogback, USA; Reykjanes Volcanic Field and Western Volcanic Zone, Iceland; and Carapace Nunatak, Antarctica. Based on the properties of these already confirmed sites, along with comparing the remaining 38 Earth volcanic fields to volcanic rocks on Mars, we recommend 11 volcanic fields in particular from our database for future investigations: Auckland and South Auckland volcanic fields, New Zealand; O’ahu, Black Rock Desert, and Black Point, USA; Tuya Volcanic Field, Canada; Karapınar Volcanic Field, Türkiye; Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago, Iceland; Llancanelo Volcanic Field, Argentina; São Miguel Volcanic Field, Azores; and Icefall Nunatak, Antarctica.

We recommend reviewing palagonitized tuff samples from these sites for evidence of microbial alteration, in addition to performing geochemical and mineralogical analyses to constrain their magmatic and alteration properties. By studying the rock record of hydrovolcanic environments on Earth to infer habitability and biological alteration, we contribute to establishing the conditions favorable for the origination, survival, and proliferation of life in a Mars-relevant setting.

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