Can we accurately estimate sediment budgets on Mars?

Image credit: Unsplash


Sediment budgets are fundamentally important for planetary science. However, only one primary method, based on remote sensing, is currently available for determining extraterrestrial sediment budgets. For determining sediment budgets on Earth, both in-situ and remote sensing methods are available. Despite the widespread use of the two methods, there has been surprisingly little research on how well the sediment budgets produced by these two approaches reconcile with one another, which highlights the lack of quantitative understanding of errors for sediment budgets measured with remote sensing in planetary research. Therefore, there is a general need to expand our knowledge of sediment budgets. Here we use a background review and analog case study of an aeolian dunefield in Grand Canyon, Earth to frame a path forward for addressing shortcomings of remote sensing sediment budgets on Mars. We estimate a 53% percent difference in the sediment budget determined with remote sensing relative to in-situ methods for a simple endmember scenario of a dunefield within a unimodal wind directional regime and no external sediment supply. However, when we incorporated key sources of uncertainty in remote sensing change detection following methods commonly used by geomorphologists on Earth, the estimates of sediment budget differences relative to the in-situ method spanned a much larger range, from 3% to 138%. Our case study also suggests that sediment budget errors could be much larger under more complex wind direction, sediment supply, and physiographic settings, and that variability in those landscape characteristics might be used to better estimate errors for dunefield sediment budgets. We conclude that by comparing sediment budgets derived from in-situ measurements of sediment fluxes and from remote sensing measurements at many more analog sites on Earth, the aeolian research community, and the geomorphology discipline, could gain an understanding of the errors of the remote sensing method, which is used by investigators on other planetary bodies such as Mars. This could improve the ability to quantify sediment budgets on Mars – and, in the future, other planetary environments where high-resolution topographic data are available – as well as directly improve our ability to interpret extraterrestrial landscape evolution related to climate, weather, and geologic history.

In Earth and Planetary Science Letters
Alan Kasprak
Alan Kasprak
Assistant Professor of Geoscience

I study river processes and management through the lens of GIS and remote sensing.