The Colorado River slowly cutting its way through rock over millions of years has formed a 450 km long, and 1.8 km deep canyon called the Grand Canyon. Whilst up close and even from space it looks impressive, in reality, it’s fairly small compared to other features which scar the planets across the solar system. Today, we’ll look at the three largest rifts and canyons in the solar system.
Valles Marineris on Mars at 4000 km long is 9 times as long as the Grand canyon and stretches 1/4 of the way around the entire planet. There are a few theories about how it formed, the most prominent is that the nearby Tharsis bulge (an area which hosts the tallest volcano in the solar system) caused tension in the crust, which lead to it tearing and pulling apart, in a process known as rifting. Erosion then would have deepened the valley further and has produced outflow channels at the end of it.
One Venus, Baltis Vallis is even longer at nearly 7000 km long, its ends are covered so its original length is unknown. This feature, like the Grand Canyon, was also likely formed by erosion. Instead of water, high-temperature lava flows would have torn up, melted, and dissolved the surfaces as they flowed over them, slowly wearing them away in the same way rivers do on Earth. Similar features were probably once present on the early Earth, Komatiite lavas, found in Australia also show signs of eroding the rocks beneath them and forming channels as they flow through an area.
However, the largest in the solar system is right here on Earth the 10’000 km long and up to 8.5 km deep Atlantic Ocean is a large cut into the Earths Surface. Like Valles Marineris, this was formed by rifting rather than a valley. Tectonic forces pulling and pushing Europe and Africa away from the Americas. Plate tectonics allowed the rift to develop much further and volcanism generated new oceanic crust was generated in between the two.
Bathymetric image of the Atlantic ocean (NOAA)
This quick overview of the largest valleys and rifts in the solar system highlights two main processes which can form them; erosion and tectonics. Volcanism on Venus and Mars, extensional forces tearing the crusts show these planets have been tectonically active. In the next few posts I’ll examine tectonics work across the solar system.