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Dust Devils on Earth and Mars  

Matthew R. Balme

Dust devils are rotating columns or cones of air, loaded with dust and other fine particles, that are most often found in arid or desert areas. They are common on both Mars and Earth, despite Mars’ very thin atmosphere. The smallest and least intense dust devils might last only a few 10s of seconds and be just a meters or two across. The largest dust devils can persist for hours and are intensely swirling columns of dust with “skirts” of sand at their base, 10s or more meters in diameter and hundreds of meters high; even larger examples have been seen on Mars. Dust devils on Earth have been documented for thousands of years, but scientific observations really began in the early 20th century, culminating in a period of intense research in the 1960s. The discovery of dust devils on Mars was made using data from the NASA Viking lander and orbiter missions in the late 1970s and early 1980s and stimulated a renewed scientific interest in dust devils. Observations from subsequent lander, rover, and orbital missions show that Martian dust devils are common but heterogeneously distributed in space and time and have a significant effect on surface albedo (often leaving “tracks” on the surface) but do not appear to be triggers of global or major dust storms. An aspiration of future research is to synthesize observations and detailed models of dust devils to estimate more accurately their role in dust lifting at both local and global scales, both on Earth and on Mars.

Article

Clouds in the Martian Atmosphere  

A. Määttänen and F. Montmessin

Although resembling an extremely dry desert, planet Mars hosts clouds in its atmosphere. Every day somewhere on the planet a part of the tiny amount of water vapor held by the atmosphere can condense as ice crystals to form mainly cirrus-type clouds. The existence of water ice clouds has been known for a long time and they have been studied for decades, leading to the establishment of a well-known climatology and understanding on their formation and properties. Despite their thinness, they have a clear impact on the atmospheric temperatures, thus affecting the Martian climate. Another, more exotic type of clouds forms as well on Mars. The atmospheric temperatures can plunge to such frigid values that the major gaseous component of the atmosphere, CO2, condenses as ice crystals. These clouds form in the cold polar night where they also contribute to the formation of the CO2 ice polar cap, and also in the mesosphere at very high altitudes, near the edge of space, analogously to the noctilucent clouds on Earth. The mesospheric clouds, discovered in the early 2000s, have put our understanding of the Martian atmosphere to a test. On Mars, cloud crystals form on ice nuclei, mostly provided by the omnipresent mineral dust. Thus, the clouds link the three major climatic cycles: those of the two major volatiles, H2O and CO2, and that of dust, which is a major climatic agent itself.

Article

Water Ice at Mid-Latitudes on Mars  

Frances E. G. Butcher

Mars’s mid-latitudes, corresponding approximately to the 30°–60° latitude bands in both hemispheres, host abundant water ice in the subsurface. Ice is unstable with respect to sublimation at Mars’s surface beyond the polar regions, but can be preserved in the subsurface at mid-to-high latitudes beneath a centimeters-to-meters-thick covering of lithic material. In Mars’s mid-latitudes, water ice is present as pore ice between grains of the martian soil (termed “regolith”) and as deposits of excess ice exceeding the pore volume of the regolith. Excess ice is present as lenses within the regolith, as extensive layers tens to hundreds of meters thick, and as debris-covered glaciers with evidence of past flow. Subsurface water ice on Mars has been inferred indirectly using numerous techniques including numerical modeling, observations of surface geomorphology, and thermal, spectral, and ground-penetrating radar analyses. Ice exposures have also been imaged directly by orbital and landed missions to Mars. Shallow pore ice can be explained by the diffusion and freezing of atmospheric water vapor into the regolith. The majority of known excess ice deposits in Mars’s mid-latitudes are, however, better explained by deposition from the atmosphere (e.g., via snowfall) under climatic conditions different from the present day. They are thought to have been emplaced within the last few million to 1 billion years, during large-scale mobilization of Mars’s water inventory between the poles, equator, and mid-latitude regions under cyclical climate changes. Thus, water ice deposits in Mars’s mid-latitudes probably host a rich record of geologically recent climate changes on Mars. Mid-latitude ice deposits are leading candidate targets for in situ resource utilization of water ice by future human missions to Mars, which may be able to sample the deposits to access such climate records. In situ water resources will be required for rocket fuel production, surface operations, and life support systems. Thus, it is essential that the nature and distribution of mid-latitude ice deposits on Mars are characterized in detail.

Article

A Retrospective on Mars Polar Ice and Climate  

Isaac B. Smith

The polar regions of Mars contain layered ice deposits that are rich in detail of past periods of accumulation and erosion. These north and south polar layered deposits (NPLD and SPLD, respectively) contain primarily water–ice and ~5% and ~10% dust derived from the atmosphere, respectively. In addition, the SPLD has two known CO2 deposits—one thin unit at the surface and one buried, much thicker unit. Together, they comprise less than 1% of the SPLD volume. Mars also experiences seasonal deposits of CO2 that form in winter and sublimate in spring and early summer. These seasonal caps are visible from Earth and have been studied for centuries. Zooming in, exposed layers at the PLDs reveal histories of climate change that resulted when orbital parameters such as obliquity, eccentricity, and argument of perihelion changed over tens of thousands to millions of years. Simpler environmental conditions at the NPLD, especially related to seasonal and aeolian processes, make interpreting the history of that polar cap much easier than the SPLD. The history of Mars polar science is linked by numerous incremental advancements and unexpected discoveries related to the observed geology of both poles, the interpreted and modeled climatic conditions that gave rise to the PLDs, and the atmospheric conditions that modify the surface.

Article

Martian Paleoclimate  

Robert M. Haberle

The climate of Mars has evolved over time. Early in its history, between 3.7 and 4.1 billion years ago, the climate was warmer and wetter and the atmosphere thicker than it is today. Erosion rates were higher than today, and liquid water flowed on the planet’s surface, carving valley networks, filling lakes, creating deltas, and weathering rocks. This implies runoff and suggests rainfall and/or snowmelt. Oceans may have existed. Over time, the atmosphere thinned, erosion rates declined, water activity ceased, and cooler and drier conditions prevailed. Ice became the dominate form of surface water. Yet the climate continued to evolve, driven now by large variations in Mars’ orbit parameters. Beating in rhythm with these variations, surface ice has been repeatedly mobilized and moved around the planet, glaciers have advanced and retreated, dust storms and polar caps have come and gone, and the atmosphere has collapsed and re-inflated many times. The layered terrains that now characterize both polar regions are telltale signatures of this cyclical behavior and owe their existence to modulations of the seasonal cycles of dust, water, and CO2. Contrary to the early images from the Mariner flybys of the 1960s, Mars is and has been a dynamically active planet whose surface has been partly shaped through its interaction with a changing atmosphere and climate system.

Article

Dust Storms on Mars  

Melinda Kahre

Airborne dust is a critical part of the atmosphere and climate of Mars.The importance of dust in the Martian atmosphere has led to extensive study of how and why dust storms begin, grow, and eventually decay. Scientists use observations combined with laboratory and numerical modeling techniques to better understand dust storms on Mars.Observations show that there is always dust in Martian atmosphere but that there are some seasons that are dustier than others.There is generally a low-level background dust haze observed during the first half of the year (northern hemisphere spring and summer), and increased dustiness observed during the second half of the year (northern hemisphere autumn and winter).Dust storms and their associated hazes range in size from meters across (local-scale) to thousands of meters across (global-scale).The largest and most infrequent dust storms—global dust storms—significantly impact the temperature and wind structures in the atmosphere on a global scale.While scientists have made significant progress in characterizing the behavior and occurrence of dust storms on Mars, many open questions remain that require future observational, laboratory, and numerical modeling studies to answer.