Basalt Weathering in an Arctic Mars-Analog Site

Document Type



The martian surface has undergone chemical and physical weathering in the past, and these processes may continue intermittently today. To explore whether martian rocks are likely to retain features indicative of weathering, we investigated how basaltic material weathers on Earth. Specifically, we investigated weathering of a Quaternary-aged basaltic flow at the Sverrefjell volcano in Svalbard, above the Arctic Circle. This flow weathered since deglaciation under cold, dry (<400 mm/yr) conditions. We analyzed a ∼75-cm core of regolith for chemical loss and then characterized the mineralogical and morphological properties using electron microscopy (EM), X-ray diffraction (XRD), infrared (IR) spectroscopy and selective chemical dissolution. In addition, we ran colloidal dispersion, wetting/drying, and freeze/thaw experiments. In the regolith, we observed concentrations of short-range ordered (SRO) phases similar to those observed in warmer, wetter volcanic ash soils. IR and EM analyses of the clay-sized fraction were consistent with allophane as the predominant secondary phase. Selective chemical extractions targeting SRO phases indicated lower Al/Si ratios than those observed in volcanic soils reported in warmer localities, which we attribute to Si-rich allophane and/or abundant Si-rich rock coatings. The oxic circumneutral-pH colloidal dispersion experiments mobilized Al, Fe and Ti primarily as 260–415 nm particles and Ca, Mg and Na as solutes. Si was lost both in the colloidal and dissolved forms. Dispersed colloids likely contain allophane and ferrihydrite. Under anoxic conditions, dissolution of Fe oxide cements also released fines. The experiments help to explain elemental loss from the clay-sized regolith fraction at Svalbard: observed depletions in Ca, K, Mg and Na were likely due to solute loss, while particle-reactive Al, Fe, Si and Ti were mostly retained. Wetting/drying was observed to be as effective as freeze/thaw in driving material loss. It is thus possible that cyclic adsorption of water onto basaltic rocks in this dry climate may result in high physical spalling rates that in turn promote chemical leaching. Many observations at Sverrefjell are similar to inferences from Mars: the presence of SRO phases, Si-rich coatings, and/or Si-rich allophane, as well as the persistence of olivine. Given these similarities, it is inferred that Sverrefjell volcano is a good analog for martian weathering and that other processes operating at Sverrefjell may also have occurred on Mars, including Na leaching, surface spalling, and precipitation of Si-rich layers. Such processes could have occurred on Mars wherever basalts were exposed to water at circumneutral pH for thousands to tens of thousands of years.