Devastating Dust Storms Stole Mars' Atmosphere and Water, Says New Study

Friday, 26 January 2018 - 10:28AM
Science News
Friday, 26 January 2018 - 10:28AM
Devastating Dust Storms Stole Mars' Atmosphere and Water, Says New Study
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Image credit: YouTube

Based on everything we've discovered thus far, Mars isn't exactly an ideal vacation destination.

There may not be much danger of rain ruining your picnic, but huge dust storms are not uncommon, so attempting to sunbathe on the Red Planet probably wouldn't go very well. There is, also, the little issue of Mars' weak atmosphere, making it impossible to breathe, which is something of a deal-breaker for most humans.

Things weren't always this way, though. Once in its past, Mars had a comfortable warm, wet climate, and a sturdy atmosphere that, while not entirely like the one found on our planet, certainly would have been a lot easier to terraform into something resembling the Earth.

So where did all of Mars' water go, and why does the planet have such a weak, thin atmosphere?

A new study published in Nature suggests a possible explanation for the Martian atmosphere's incredible disappearing act. Based on data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), a team of scientists noticed a dramatic change in the upper atmosphere of the planet during large dust storms.

According to lead author Nicholas Heavens of the Universe of Hampton University:

Opening quote
"We found there's an increase in water vapor in the middle atmosphere in connection with dust storms. Water vapor is carried up with the same air mass rising with the dust."
Closing quote

If this new theory is to be believed, Mars suffers from this unfortunate atmosphere-thinning thanks in large part to the big storms that swirl across its surface. Because the Red Planet no longer has a strong magnetic field, there's nothing keeping its resources from floating off into space when the dust clouds get big enough.

From the looks of things, this explains where Mars' liquid water went, as it was carried off-world before disappearing into the inky black of space.

That said, it's worth noting that Mars still does have some weak atmosphere with interesting hints at what might be hiding below the planet's surface. Methane levels have been seen to fluctuate, which could indicate the presence of gas seeping out from cracks in the ground.

What's more, large glaciers of frozen water have been spotted below the Martian dust. Based on all possible analysis, it looks like while Mars' top-most layer of dirt and gas is fairly boring by this point, these huge dust storms can't carry away the intriguing mysteries that are hidden underground.

It should probably also be noted that not all scientists agree that Mars did once have a particularly wet surface—it could be that these dust clouds haven't pulled quite as much water from Martian lakes as we currently suspect, but further data will be required to confirm this theory.

Regardless, the phenomenal strength of the Martian storms will make life difficult for future colonists who could get caught up in these winds. All in all, nobody is going to have a great time hanging out on the Martian surface any time soon, no matter how many Tesla Roadsters will be available in orbit!

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