Stark Climate Change on Mars –“The Red Planet is Emerging from a 370,000-Year Ice Age”

 

 

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Radar measurements of Mars’ polar ice caps reveal that the mostly dry, dusty planet is emerging from an ice age, following multiple rounds of climate change. Understanding the Martian climate will help determine when the planet was habitable in the past, how that changed, and may inform studies of climate change on Earth. Models have suggested that Mars has undergone ice ages in the past, but empirical data to confirm this has been sparse. While the southern ice cap is relatively small and altered by meteorite impacts, the researchers were able to trace the layers within the northern ice cap. They found layers and migration paths that increase in slope abruptly, reverse direction, or are completely buried. Their analysis suggests that the planet is currently emerging from an ice age, in a retreat that began approximately 370,000 years ago.


Like Earth, modern-day Mars experiences annual rotation and seasonal cycles, as well as longer cycles, that influence the distribution of ice. However, these longer cycles might be more pronounced on Mars. This is because Mars’ tilt changes substantially — by as much as 60 degrees — on timescales of hundreds of thousands to millions of years. By comparison, the Earth’s tilt varies by only about 2 degrees over the same period. On Mars, this greater variability determines the amount of sunlight reaching a given spot on the surface and thus the stability of ice at all latitudes.

 

“Because the climate on Mars fluctuates with larger swings in axial tilt, and ice will distribute differently for each swing, Mars would look substantially different in the past than it does now,” said Smith. “Furthermore, because Mars has no oceans at present, it represents a simplified ‘laboratory’ for understanding climate science on Earth.”

Using radar data collected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a Southwest Research Institute-led team found evidence of an ice age recorded in the polar deposits of Mars. Ice ages on Mars are driven by processes similar to those responsible for ice ages on Earth, that is, long-term cyclical changes in the planet’s orbit and tilt, which affect the amount of solar radiation it receives at each latitude.

“We found an accelerated accumulation rate of ice in the uppermost 100 to 300 meters of the polar cap,” said Dr. Isaac Smith, a postdoctoral researcher at SwRI and lead author of a paper published in the May 27 issue of Science. “The volume and thickness of ice matches model predictions from the early 2000s. Radar observations of the ice cap provide a detailed history of ice accumulation and erosion associated with climate change.”

Detailed measurements of ice thickness show that about 87,000 cubic kilometers of ice have accumulated at the poles since the end of the last ice age about 370,000 years ago; the majority of the material accumulated at the martian north pole. This volume is equivalent to a layer of 60 centimeters if spread uniformly across the surface. These results provide a means to understand the accumulation history of the polar deposits as related to Mars movements, such as orbital eccentricity, axial tilt, and rotation around the Sun. The results will support modeling efforts to understand the martian climate, looking at the movement of ice from poles to mid-latitudes during climate cycles.

“Studying ice on Mars also is important to the future of human exploration of the Red Planet,” said Smith. “Water will be a critical resource for a martian outpost.”

“An ice age recorded in the polar deposits of Mars” is published in Science. This work was funded by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter project.

The NASA image at the top of the page from the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft shows Mars north pole: the white material is frozen carbon dioxide; the clouds of at least three dust storms can be identified.

The Daily Galaxy via SWRI 

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