Molecular Monday: Basalt as a Sedimentary Rock

I had a rough week last week, which disrupted my regular posting schedule. But I’ll talk about that on Wednesday for IWSG.

Today I’ve returned to Mars and I’m ready to continue my exploration of the Martian surface. I considered calling today’s post Mineralogical Monday, but really minerals are just a special kind of molecule, so I’ll stick to the Molecular Monday series I already have going.

Before I was so rudely brought back down to Earth, I was visiting Gale Crater. I wanted to meet the Curiosity Rover and maybe get an autograph, but I got distracted by some peculiar rocks.

It’s hard to put into words what was so odd about these rocks. They have the look and feel of sedimentary rocks, but in terms of chemical composition they’re more like basalt. But basaltic sedimentary rock is a contradiction in terms.

Sedimentary rocks form (typically) when sediment accumulates at the bottom of a river, lake, or other body of water. Over time, the sediment becomes compacted or cemented together, and thus a new rock is born.

Basalt is an igneous rock, meaning it forms from cooling magma, and it is chemically vulnerable to water. Basalt tends to include a lot of iron, magnesium, and calcium; water tends to leech these elements out of basalt, leaving a silicon-rich clay behind. So as a sediment sitting at the bottom of a lake or river, basalt wouldn’t last long enough to turn into sedimentary rock.

Fortunately for me, I’m not the only one who’s struggled to find the right terms to describe these weird Martian rocks. Emily Lakdawalla, a well respected science journalist writing for the Planetary Society, wrote an article about this and summed up the inherent contradiction well: “Sedimentary rocks say ‘Mars was wet.’ Basaltic composition says ‘Mars was dry.’”

So how did these basalt-like sedimentary rocks form? I can think of three possibilities:

  • Windblown Sediment: Sedimentary rocks can be created by wind rather than water, but as Emily Lakdawalla shows in her article, not all of these Mars rocks can be explained that way.
  • Liquids Other Than Water: It’s possible the sediment was deposited by a liquid other than water. That explanation makes more sense to me on a super-cold planetoid like Titan, where water is a rock and rivers are full of methane; however on Mars, water still seems to be the most likely working fluid.
  • Flash Floods: Maybe basaltic sediment was only exposed to water for a short time, perhaps during the flash floods that seem to have occurred during Mars’s Hesperian Period.

Most of the rock formations in Gale Crater are already believed to be Hesperian-aged, so the flash flooding idea makes the most sense to me. But of course the Curiosity Rover has been here a lot longer than I have, so I’ll be eager to ask her opinion on the matter.

5 Responses to Molecular Monday: Basalt as a Sedimentary Rock

  1. Scott Levine says:

    Wow… really interesting. I always thought basalts were a sign of water, too. Good to see you back. I hope all’s well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      I’m kind of new to geology and mineralogy, but at least in Emily Lakdawalla’s article it was pretty clear that basalt and water don’t play well together. Maybe there are circumstances where they do go together, or maybe there’s some important distinction I’m missing. But if I learn anything new about this, I’ll be sure to post about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Scott Levine says:

        Oh, I’m sure I’m not right. I trust Emily Lakdawalla more than I trust whatever I’m thinking of. I’m just sometimes surprised about the many ways I can manage to be wrong about things. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • J.S. Pailly says:

        Oh believe me, I know the experience. I’ve been wrong about loads of things. And while I’m sure Emily Lakdawalla knows what she’s talking about, that doesn’t necessarily mean I fully understood all the nuances of what she was saying.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Scott Levine says:

        Yeah… science… I wish I knew more. It all reminds me of the old cliche that U2 so smoothly took as their own, “I knew much more then than I do now.”

        Liked by 1 person

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