EPSC 2010 – Peculiar Phenomena During Northern Spring on Mars
September 22, 2010

EPSC 2010: Peculiar Phenomena During Northern Spring on Mars

Scientists may have solved the mystery of the carbon dioxide ice disappearance early in the Northern Martian springs followed later by its sudden reappearance, revealing a very active water cycle on the planet. Dr. Bernard Schmitt and Mr. Thomas Appéré will report their results about water ice mobility during Martian Year 28, at the European Planetary Science Congress in Rome from Wednesday 22d to Friday 24th September.

Seasonal ice deposits are one of the most important Martian meteorological processes, playing a major role in the water cycle of the planet. Every Martian year, alternatively during northern and southern winter, a significant part of the atmosphere condenses on the surface in the form of frost and snow. These seasonal ice deposits, which can be up to one meter thick, are mainly composed of carbon dioxide with minor amounts of water and dust. During spring, the deposits sublimate (vaporize), becoming a substantial source of water vapour, in particular in the northern hemisphere of the planet.

Dr. Schmitt and his colleagues Thomas Appéré and Dr. Sylvain Douté at the Laboratoire de Planétologie de Grenoble, France, have analyzed data taken with the OMEGA instrument on board Mars Express, for two northern Martian regions. Before the Mars Express mission (ESA), the evolution of the seasonal deposits has been monitored by the albedo (reflectivity) and temperature changes of the surface, as the ice deposits appear much brighter and are colder than the surrounding defrosted terrains.“But we couldn’t resolve their exact composition and how they were distributed on the planet. Near-infrared observations, such as the OMEGA data, are much better for detecting strong signatures of water and carbon dioxide ice,” says Mr Appéré.

The first Martian region that the scientists observed is located on Gemina Lingula, a Northern plateau, where peculiar evolution of the carbon dioxide ice deposits was observed. “During spring the ice signature disappeared from our data, but the surface temperature was still cold enough to sustain plenty of CO2 ice. We concluded that a thick layer of something else, either dust or water ice was overlaid. If it was dust then it would also hide water ice and the surface of the planet would become darker. None of these happened so we concluded that a layer of water ice was hiding the CO2 ice.” explains Dr Schmitt.

But where does this layer of water ice come from? Soon after spring sunrise, the solar radiation hitting the surface of Mars warms enough the CO2 ice lying on the top layer to cause it to vaporize. But the water ice needs higher temperatures to sublimate, so a fine grained layer of water ice gradually forms hiding the carbon dioxide ice still lying beneath it. “A layer only 2 tenths of a millimetre thick is enough to completely hide the CO2 ice. Also some water that has been vaporized at lower, warmer, Martian latitudes condenses as it moves northward and may be cold trapped on top of the CO2 ice,” says Mr. Appéré.

The second region analysed by the team is located in the spiral troughs structure of the North permanent cap. A similar situation was observed but the carbon dioxide ice re-appeard very quickly here after its initial disappearance. “This hide-and-seek game didn’t make much sense to us. It wasn’t cold enough for CO2 ice to condense again, neither warm enough for water ice to sublimate,” explains Dr. Schmitt. “We concluded that somehow the water ice layer was removed. The topography of the North permanent Martian cap is well-suited to entail the formation of strong katabatic (downhill) winds. Aymeric Spiga used a model from the Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique du CNRS to simulate those winds and he indeed confirmed the sudden re-appearances of CO2 ice where strong katabatic winds blow,” says Mr. Appéré.

Dr. Schmitt concludes: “To decipher the present and past water cycles on Mars and improve our weather models on the planet, one needs to have a good understanding of the seasonal ice deposits dynamics, how they change in space and time. We are confident that our results will make a significant contribution in this direction”.


Figure 1: Sudden reappearance of the carbon dioxide ice signature between “solar longitudes” 59.2° and 60.2° (which corresponds to a time lapse of approximately two Martian days) in the spiral troughs structure of the North polar cap.

Figure 2: (a) Simulation of katabatic (downhill) winds. Colour bar: friction velocity from 0.1 to 0.6 m/s. (b) Localization of regions where early disappearances (blue) and sudden reappearances (orange) of the carbon dioxide ice signature are observed.

Elements of comparison between Martian and terrestrial mesoscale meteorological phenomena: Katabatic winds and boundary layer convection, Spiga A., 2010, Planetary and Space Science 2010., in press
Onset and migration of spiral troughs on Mars revealed by orbital radar, Smith & Holt, 2010, Nature, Volume 465, Issue 7297, pp. 450-453.
MARCI and MOC observations of the atmosphere and surface cap in the north polar region of Mars, Cantor et al, 2010, Icarus, Volume 208, Issue 1, p. 61-81
Spatial and Temporal Distributions of the Water Ice Annulus During the Recession of the Northern Seasonal Condensates on Mars, Appéré et al, 2008, Third International Workshop on The Mars Atmosphere: Modeling and Observations, LPI Contribution n° 1447, p. 9008
Mars Surface Diversity as Revealed by the OMEGA/Mars Express Observations, Bibring et al, 2005, Science, Volume 307, Issue 5715, pp. 1576-1581

EPSC 2010 is organised by Europlanet, a Research Infrastructure funded under the European Commission’s Framework 7 Programme, in association with the European Geosciences Union, with the support of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) and the INAF Institute of Physics of Interplanetary Science (IFSI) in Rome. EPSC is the major meeting in Europe for planetary scientists. The 2010 programme comprises 48 sessions and workshops covering a wide range of planetary topics.
EPSC 2010 is taking place at the Angelicum Center – Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome, Italy from Sunday 19 September to Friday 24 September 2010.
For further details, see the meeting website: http://meetings.copernicus.org/epsc2010/

Europlanet Research RI is a major (€6 million) programme co-funded by the European Union under the Seventh Framework Programme of the European Commission.
Europlanet RI brings together the European planetary science community through a range of Networking Activities, aimed at fostering a culture of cooperation in the field of planetary sciences, Transnational Access Activities, providing European researchers with access to a range of laboratory and field site facilities tailored to the needs of planetary research, as well as on-line access to the available planetary science data, information and software tools, through the Integrated and Distributed Information Service. These programmes are underpinned by Joint Research Activities, which are developing and improving the facilities, models, software tools and services offered by Europlanet
Europlanet Project website: http://www.europlanet-ri.eu/
Europlanet Outreach/Media website: http://www.europlanet-eu.org/