Ancient Mars never had oceans of water and could have looked more like an icy snowball than the warmer, wetter planet that many researchers have suggested, according to a new study.
The high seas of Mars may never have existed, the study that looked at two opposite climate scenarios of early Mars has found and suggests that a cold and icy planet billions of years ago better explains water drainage and erosion features seen on the planet today.
For decades, researchers have debated the climate history of Mars and how the planet’s early climate led to the many water-carved channels seen today.
The idea that 3 to 4 billion years ago Mars was once warm, wet and Earth-like with a northern sea — conditions that could have led to life — is generally more popular than that of a frigid, icy planet where water is locked in ice most of the time and life would be hard to evolve.
To see which early Mars better explains the modern features of the planet, researcher Robin Wordsworth of the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and his colleagues used a 3-dimensional atmospheric circulation model to compare a water cycle on Mars under different scenarios 3 to 4 billion years ago, during what’s called the late Noachian and early Hesperian periods.
One scenario looked at Mars as a warm and wet planet with an average global temperature of 10 degrees Celsius and the other as a cold and icy world with an average global temperature of minus 48 degrees Celsius.
The study found that the cold scenario was more likely to have occurred than the warm scenario, based on what is known about the history of the Sun and the tilt of Mars’s axis 3 to 4 billion years ago.
The cold model also did a better job explaining the water erosion features that have been left behind on the Martian surface, and which have puzzled and intrigued scientists since they were first discovered by the Viking orbiters in the 1970s, researchers said.
The colder scenario was more straightforward to model, Wordsworth said, because Mars only gets 43 per cent of the solar energy of Earth, and early Mars was lit by a younger Sun believed to have been 25 per cent dimmer than it is today. That makes it very likely early Mars was cold and icy.
An extreme tilt of the Martian axis would have pointed the planet’s poles at the Sun and driven polar ice to the equator, where water drainage and erosion features are seen today, researchers said.
More importantly, under a thicker atmosphere that likely existed under the colder scenario, highland regions at the equator get colder and northern low-lying regions get warmer – the so-called ‘icy highlands effect’ that is responsible for making the peaks of mountains snow-covered on Earth today.
Despite a number of warming factors – including a thicker atmosphere filled with climate-warming carbon dioxide — Mars still would have been quite cold, Wordsworth added. The research was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Planets.