Global drainage patterns and the origins of topographic relief on Earth, Mars, and Titan

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Science  19 May 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6339, pp. 727-731
DOI: 10.1126/science.aag0171

River systems reveal planetary tectonics

Earth, Mars, and Titan have all hosted rivers at some point in their histories. Rivers erode the landscape, leaving behind signatures that depend on whether the surface topography was in place before, during, or after the period of liquid flow. Black et al. developed two metrics to measure how well river channels align with the surrounding large-scale topography (see the Perspective by Burr). Earth's plate tectonics introduce features such as mountain ranges that cause rivers to divert, processes that clearly differ from those found on Mars and Titan.

Science, this issue p. 727; see also p. 708


Rivers have eroded the topography of Mars, Titan, and Earth, creating diverse landscapes. However, the dominant processes that generated topography on Titan (and to some extent on early Mars) are not well known. We analyzed drainage patterns on all three bodies and found that large drainages, which record interactions between deformation and erosional modification, conform much better to long-wavelength topography on Titan and Mars than on Earth. We use a numerical landscape evolution model to demonstrate that short-wavelength deformation causes drainage directions to diverge from long-wavelength topography, as observed on Earth. We attribute the observed differences to ancient long-wavelength topography on Mars, recent or ongoing generation of long-wavelength relief on Titan, and the creation of short-wavelength relief by plate tectonics on Earth.

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