Mars is puzzling. From rover and satellite observations we know that it once had plenty of water on its surface, which usually suggests warm and wet conditions. On the other hand, evidence suggests the planet was always pretty chilly, even in the distant past, but it's not a cold, dry desert either. These two ideas are often at odds, but new research suggests that they could both be true: ancient Mars was likely a frigid world both cold and wet.
Researchers set out to create a model that can explain the perplexing features witnessed on the Red Planet. If the planet wasn't warm and wet or cold and dry could there be a third option? Publishing their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they believe that their cold and wet scenario can explain the existence of a vast liquid ocean in the Northern Hemisphere of Mars, extending to its polar region.
However, the model needed to explain both the presence of a liquid ocean and ice-capped regions, like the presence of glacial valleys and ice sheets in the southern highlands.
Planetary scientists studying Mars have found evidence of ancient tsunamis that rocked the Red Planet. If the ocean was frozen due to a very cold climate, these tsunamis would not have happened. But a milder climate would have meant transferring water from the ocean to the land through precipitation. Cold and wet conditions, however, could have existed.
The team used an advanced general circulation model to work out the necessary parameters for this world. They calculated it was possible for an ocean to be stable even if the mean temperature of Mars was below 0°C (32°F), the freezing point of water, 3 billion years ago. They envisioned ice-covered plateaus in the south with glaciers flowing across the plains and returning to the ocean. Rainfall would have been moderate around the shoreline. In this scenario, the ocean surface could be up to 4.5°C (40°F); not tropical but enough for water to stay liquid.
The key to these conditions is all in the air. The atmosphere of Mars today is about 1 percent in density compared to Earth’s own. But, if in the past it was roughly the same and was made of about 10 percent hydrogen and the rest carbon dioxide, this scenario would actually work. Previous analyses have found strong evidence for a thicker atmosphere before it was ripped from the planet by the steady stream of particles from the Sun.
The model is certainly compelling in explaining the peculiarities of Mars, but of course, much more evidence is needed to understand what the Red Planet was really like billions of years ago.