ISU Headlines

ISU geologist studies Mars in his ‘own backyard’

Posted November 28, 2007

Those who want to study the surface of Mars can send a rocket ship to the Red Planet. Or they can do what Scott Hughes does.

Hughes, Ph.D., chair of the Idaho State University geosciences department, travels a few miles to the Eastern Snake River Plain (ESRP), whose geology, he says, in many ways resembles that of Mars.

Arizona State University planetary geologist Ron Greeley, Ph.D., coined the term “Plains Style Volcanism” to link the Snake River Plain, Mars, Earth’s moon, Mercury, Venus, and Io (moon of Jupiter), all of whose geology is characterized by low shield volcanoes with broad, gentle slopes built by the eruption of basalt lava.

“Low shields can tell us a lot about how a planet evolved. Any volcano can,” Hughes says, adding he studies shields because “they are in my own backyard, the Snake River Plain.”

Local examples of low-shield volcanoes include the Hell’s Half Acre Lava Field between Pocatello and Idaho Falls, and the Wapi Lava Field west of American Falls.

“I study low shields, where one eruption can last from several months to several decades and then shut down,” Hughes says. “The Snake River Plain has hundreds of them ranging in age from 2,000 to over 1 million years old.”

Hughes says that examples of seven geologic features are found on or near the ESRP and on Mars. They include: outflow flood channels, which in Idaho are the channels created by the flood of old Lake Bonneville; fault scarps, in Idaho the Lost River Fault; landslides and debris flows, including the Salmon Falls Creek Canyon landslide near Buhl; rock glaciers, examples of which are found in the Sawtooths and Lemhi Range; windblown features, such as the St. Anthony sand dunes; volcanic features, including local lava fields, calderas, domes and ash deposits; and plains-style volcanism featuring low-shield volcanoes.

By studying relatively fresh geological activity on the ESRP, Hughes says we can understand ancient activity on other planets.

“For example, we see a fault scarp on Earth that may be thousands of years old, but on another planet it may be millions of years old,” he says. “We study mechanisms on Earth, and if we understand them we understand the processes and can relate them to what has happened on other planets.”

Hughes says that with lunar and Mars research at the forefront, ISU is continuing its advances in planetary geology, which he terms “the study of processes and features that occur in all planets, not just Earth. It is the geologic investigation of systems including planets, moons, comets, all the bodies in a system.”

He adds that under President Arthur C. Vailas, Ph.D., ISU has a timely interest in planetary geology, timely because there is renewed interest in returning to the moon and traveling to Mars, so there is renewed interest in studying those bodies. Since the ESRP is analogous to the geology of Mars, Venus and the moon, by studying the ESRP, we study them.

“Our department specializes in field geology using four-dimensional geospatial analysis (the three linear dimensions and time) and planetary dynamics, both of which make use of the great outdoor classroom in the state of Idaho,” says Hughes, who confesses to being interested in planetary geology since he was growing up.

“We have actively worked in the field with planetary scientists from other institutions,” he continues. “Many planetary scientists want to come to Idaho to learn about our geologic features up close. They are then better able to evaluate similar features they are studying on other planets. I now have collaborations with scientists in other states, the Middle East and Europe. There are only a few thousand people doing planetary work, but the number is growing.”

And ISU scientists will be in the vanguard of that number.