Geology Prof. Eric Grosfils Awarded NASA Grant to Study Volcanoes on Mars

Olympus Mons photo from European Space Agency

Throughout the planet’s history, volcanic activity has played a prominent role in shaping the surface of Mars.

Eric Grosfils, Minnie B. Cairns Memorial Professor of Geology, seeks to understand how giant volcanoes on Mars have functioned and evolved. He recently received a $389,000 grant from NASA to model this volcanic activity along with two collaborators, John Chadwick from the College of Charleston and Patrick McGovern from the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

Over the next three years, using innovative mapping methods and high-resolution images taken by spacecraft, they will study young lava flows and summit calderas, which are large depressions formed when volcanoes erupt and collapse. Complementing their broader effort to understand the evolution of four massive volcanoes on Mars, Grosfils’ task is to use numerical models to identify subsurface magmatic conditions suitable for reproducing misaligned lava flows, tilted floors and caldera structures near the summit of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system.

To give a sense of how big Olympus Mons is, Grosfils points out that the footprint is about the same size as the state of Arizona and five times the diameter of the Big Island of Hawaii, which contains two of our world’s largest active volcanoes.

“Mars is a puzzle. How does a planet much smaller than ours manage to build such massive volcanoes, and what were the most recent stages of their growth like?” Grosfils asks.

During the next three summers, Grosfils will leverage the grant to work closely with Claremont Colleges students, tailoring different elements of the research to their skills and interests. He notes that mapping lava flow orientations is a research endeavor accessible to first-year students and non-geology majors, while the modeling elements of the project are well-suited for students with more advanced quantitative and geoscience skills.

“I really want to fold students into it, and I have the resources to do that.” Grosfils says. “It’s exciting work to be doing, and I hope that some of their research will lead to senior theses and perhaps even publication of their discoveries in a scientific journal.”

Grosfils has spent several decades investigating many different types of volcanic features on Earth, Venus and Mars. As a planetary volcanologist, his goal is to improve our understanding of the conditions and mechanics associated with some of the largest eruptions and intrusive events that have occurred in the solar system. For him, a key motivation is that studying volcanism on other planets can help improve our insight into how volcanoes work everywhere, including on Earth.

“While these large caldera-forming eruptions are rare, they are catastrophic when they occur. They change global climates. They wipe out regions,” Grosfils says. “There is a great deal we don’t know about why those events happen and what triggers them, but their hazard to modern society is on par with a large asteroid hitting the planet. When it comes to understanding the conditions that facilitate large caldera formation, I’ll take every data point I can get.”