When NASA’s Phoenix Lander touches down on Mars this weekend—presuming it survives the hot and harrowing descent to the surface—scientists hope that it finds more evidence of water. A new study in Science uses an Idaho gorge to suggest that the surface of Mars may have once been covered in huge quantities of water, though that may not be as good a portent for finding life on the Red Planet as it might sound.
While the Colorado River gradually carved the Grand Canyon over the last five or six millions years, there’s more than one way to scoop out a chasm. Short but massive deluges of water can do it, too. That’s how Michael Lamb and his team at the University of California, Berkeley think that Box Canyon in eastern Idaho was created.
There are boulders downstream too heavy for the canyon’s spring to have carried, and the spring water is nice and clean—not chemically nasty enough to dissolve the rock. That evidence eroded the hypothesis that Box Canyon formed the same way as the Grand Canyon, gradually over time.
Lamb and his colleagues speculate that the same kind flooding that carved the Idaho gorge could have cleaved the canyons of Mars, which, if true, hurts the chances that life arose on the planet. Torrents of water can end life, and torrents of water aren’t very good for creating it, either. Life as we know it on earth arose in more stable conditions—climates that were consistently warm and wet for long periods. But while there’s strong evidence for Box Canyon’s abrupt birth, Martian floods are still a guess. So for the sake of life on Mars, let’s hope that the planet’s surface was boring.