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Glaciers on Mars Boast Enough Water to Flood Entire Planet

Apr 08, 2015 04:49 PM EDT
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For some time now, scientists have been trying to determine whether the Red Planet once held water suitable for life, and now new research adds to the growing evidence, finding that belts of glaciers on Mars boast enough water to flood the entire planet.

That's at least according to a new study recently published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which details how radar measurements show that underneath a thick layer of dust, there are glaciers composed of frozen water in both the southern and northern hemisphere of Mars.

While researchers had already known that these glaciers existed, it had long been debated whether the ice was made of frozen water (H2O) or of carbon dioxide (CO2), or whether it was just mud.

But thanks to radar measurements from the NASA satellite, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a team of scientists at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen has finally verified that these glaciers do in fact harbor water.

Even more amazing is that after calculating the size of the glaciers and thus the amount of water in them, it turns out they contain enough water to cover all of Mars by more than one meter of ice.

"We have looked at radar measurements spanning ten years back in time to see how thick the ice is and how it behaves. A glacier is after all a big chunk of ice and it flows and gets a form that tells us something about how soft it is. We then compared this with how glaciers on Earth behave and from that we have been able to make models for the ice flow," Nanna Bjørnholt Karlsson, a postdoc at the Centre for Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute, explained in a statement.

Previous research has identified thousands of glacier-like formations on the Martian surface. However, while some areas have good detailed high-resolution data, others - like these belts, which are located around Mars between the latitudes 300-500, equivalent to just south of Denmark's location on Earth - do not.

So to fill in the gaps, the researchers supplemented the sparse data with information about the flow and form of the glaciers from the very well studied areas. Thus, they were able to calculate how thick and voluminous the ice is across the glacier belts.

"We have calculated that the ice in the glaciers is equivalent to over 150 billion cubic meters of ice - that much ice could cover the entire surface of Mars with 1.1 meters of ice. The ice at the mid-latitudes is therefore an important part of Mars' water reservoir," explained Karlsson.

Normally scientists would expect that due to the low atmospheric pressure on Mars, ice would simply evaporate into water vapor. However, Karlsson and her colleagues suspect that the thick layer of dust is acting as a protective barrier, preventing the ice from evaporating into space. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : ESA/DLR/FU Berlin) The image from the High Resolution Stereo Camera shows that a thick layer of dust covers the glaciers, so they appear as the surface of the ground.

From the surface, Mars may appear as just a dusty planet, but underneath this guise are hidden glaciers that harbor massive quantities of water. This also isn't the first evidence that Mars is more than it's cracked up to be.

Aside from the studied belts of glaciers and the Red Planet's distinct polar ice caps, prior research has also found evidence that a primitive ocean on Mars once held more water than Earth's vast Arctic Ocean.

Now that's not to say that Mars was once a beautiful blue planet like our Earth, however, it does give hope to experts searching for signs of past life on the Red Planet.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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