Orbiters are giving us a chance to study the surface of Mars closely, and some of the features that pop to prominence are dry river channels. There are over 10,000 of them. But a new study suggests that glaciers on ancient Mars are responsible for many of them.
According to the study, those glaciers and the water flowing under them are resonsible for carving out some of those riverbeds, rather than free-flowing rivers.
Jeff Kargel is a Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. He is a geologist, a glaciologist, and a planetary scientist. Climate change is a major thread, and that is what he is here today to talk about.
Things are not looking good for Earth’s glaciers. Usually, when it comes to climate change and melting ice, we think of the Earth’s polar regions. But they’re not the only important ice formations, and they’re not the only ice that’s melting due to climate change.
One of the most visible signs of Climate Change are the ways in which glaciers and ice sheets have been disappearing all over the world. This trend is not reserved to the Arctic ice cap or the Antarctic Basin, of course. On every part of the planet, scientists have been monitoring glaciers that have been shrinking in the past few decades to determine their rate of loss.
These activities are overseen by NASA’s Earth Observatory, which relies on instruments like the Landsat satellites to monitor seasonal ice losses from orbit. As these satellites demonstrated with a series of recently released images, the Puncak Jaya ice sheets on the south pacific island of Papua/New Guinea have been receding in the past three decades, and are at risk of disappearing in just a decade.
The Papau province of New Guinea has a very rugged landscape that consists of the mountains that make up Sudirman Range. The tallest peaks in this range are Puncak Jaya and Ngga Pulu, which stand 4,884 meters (16,020 feet) and 4,862 meters (15,950 feet) above sea level, respectively. Despite being located in the tropics, the natural elevation of these peaks allows them to sustain small fields of “permanent” ice.
Given the geography, these ice fields are incredibly rare. In fact, within the tropics, the closest glacial ice is found 11,200 km (6,900 mi) away on Mount Kenya in Africa. Otherwise, one has to venture north for about 4,500 km (2,800 mi) to Mount Tate in central Japan, where glacial ice is more common since it is much farther away from the equator.
Sadly, these rare glaciers are becoming more threatened with every passing year. Like all tropical glaciers in the world today, the glaciers on the slopes around Puncak Jaya have been shrinking at a such a rate that scientists estimate that they could be gone within a decade. This was illustrated by a pair of Landsat images that show how the ice fields have shrunk over the past thirty years.
The first of these images (shown above) was acquired on November 3rd, 1988, by the Thematic Mapper instrument aboard the Landsat 5 satellite. The second image (shown below) was acquired on December 5th, 2017, by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite. These false-color images are a combination of shortwave infrared, infrared, near-infrared, and red light.
The extent of the ice fields are shown in light blue, whereas rocky areas are represented in brown, vegetation in green, and clouds in white. The gray circular area near the center of the 2017 image is the Grasberg mine, the largest gold and second-largest copper mine in the world. This mine expanded considerably between the 1980s and 2000s are a result of a boom in copper prices.
As the images show, in 1988, there were five masses of ice resting on the mountain slopes – the Meren, Southwall, Carstensz, East Northwall Firn and West Northwall Firn glaciers. However, by 2017, only the Carstensz and a small portion of the East Northwall Firn glaciers remained. As Christopher Shuman, a research professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained:
“The ice area losses since the 1980s here are quite striking, visible in the contrast of the blue ice with the reddish bedrock. Even though the area still gets snowfalls, it is clearly not sustaining these glacial remnants.”
Similarly, in 2009, images taken by Landsat 5 of these same glaciers (see below) indicated that the Meren and Southwall glaciers had disappeared. Meanwhile, the Carstensz, East Northwall Firn and West Northwall Firn glaciers had retreated dramatically. Based on the rate of loss, scientists estimated at the time that all of Puncak Jaya’s glaciers would be gone within 20 years.
As these latest images demonstrate, their estimates were right on the money. At their current rate, what remains of the Carstensz and East Northwall Firn glaciers will be gone by the late 2020s. The primary cause of the ice loss is rising air temperatures, which leads to rapid sublimation. However, changes in humidity levels, precipitation patterns and cloudiness can also have an impact.
Humidity is also important, since it affects how readily glaciers can lose mass directly to the atmosphere. Where the air is more moist, ice is able to make the transition to water more easily, and can be returned to the glacier in the form of precipitation. Where the air is predominately dry, ice makes the transition directly from a solid form to a gaseous form (aka. sublimation).
Temperature and precipitation are also closely linked to ice loss. Where temperatures are low enough, precipitation takes the form of snow, which can sustain glaciers and cause them to grow. Rainfall, on the other hand, will cause ice sheets to melt and recede. And of course, clouds affect how much sunlight reaches the glacier’s surface, which results in warming and sublimation.
For many tropical glaciers, scientists are still working out the relative importance of these factors and attempting to determine to what extent anthropogenic factors plays a role. In the meantime, tracking how these changes are leading to ice loss in the tropical regions provides scientists with a means of comparison when studying ice loss in other parts of the world.
As Andrew Klein, a geography professor at Texas A & M University who has studied the region, explained:
“Glacier recession continues in the tropics—these happen to be the last glaciers in the eastern tropics. Fortunately, the impact will be limited given their small size and the fact that they do not represent a significant water resource.”
Satellites continue to play an important role in the monitoring process, giving scientist the ability to map glacier ice loss, map seasonal changes, and draw comparisons between different parts on the planet. They also allow scientists to monitor remote and inaccessible areas of the planet to see how they too are being affected. Last, but not least, they allow scientists to estimate the timing of a glacier’s disappearance.
Located along the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula is the Larsen Ice Shelf. Named after the Norwegian Captain who explored the ice front back in 1893, this ice shelf has been monitored for decades due to its close connection with rising global temperatures. Essentially, since the 1990s, the shelf has been breaking apart, causing collapses of considerable intensity.
According to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the section of the ice sheet known as the Larsen C Ice Shelf could be experiencing a collapse of its own soon enough. Based on video footage and satellite evidence of the sizeable rift (which is 457 m or 15oo ft across) in the shelf, it is believed that an ice berg that is roughly 5,000 km² (1930.5 mi²) in size could be breaking off and calving into the ocean in the near future.
An ice shelf is essentially a floating extension of a land-based glacier. In this case, the Larsen Ice Shelf is seaborne section of the larger Larsen Glacier, which flows southeast past Mount Larsen and enters the Ross Sea just south of Victoria Land. These shelves often act as buttresses, holding back glaciers that flow down to the coast, thus preventing them from entering the ocean and contributing to rising sea levels.
In the past twenty-two years, the Larsen A and B ice shelves (which were situated further north along the Antarctic Peninsula) both collapsed into the sea. This resulted in the dramatic acceleration of glaciers behind them, as larger volumes of ice were able to flow down the coast and drop into the ocean. While Larsen C appeared to still be stable, in November of 2016, NASA noted the presence of a large crack in its surface.
This crack was about 110 kilometers (68 mi) long and was more than 91 m (299 ft) wide, reaching a depth of about 500 m (1,600 ft). By December, the rift had extended another 21 km (13 mi), which raised concerns about calving. In February of 2017, satellite observations of the shelf noted that the crack appeared to have grown further, which confirmed what researches from the MIDAS project had previously reported.
This UK-based Antarctic research project – which is based at Swansea University and Aberystwyth University in Wales and supported by the BAS and various international partners – is dedicated to monitoring the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. Through a combination of field work, satellite observations, and computer simulations, they have catalogued how recent warming trends has caused seasonal melts of the ice shelf and affected its structure.
And in recent years, they have been monitoring the large crack, which has been fast-moving, and noted the appearance of several elongations. It was during the current Antarctic field season that members of the project filmed what the crack looked like from the air. In previous surveys, the glaciology research team has conducted research on the ice shelf using seismic techniques to survey the seafloor beneath it.
However, this past season, they did not set up on the ice shelf itself for fear of a calving event. Instead, they made a series of trips to and from the UK’s Rothera Research Station aboard twin otter aircraft. During an outing to retrieve some of their science equipment, the crew noted how the crack looked from above and started filming. As you can see from the footage, the rift is very wide and extremely long.
What’s more, the team estimates that if an iceberg from this shelf breaks off and falls into the ocean, it will likely be over three times the size of cities like London or New York City. And while this sort of thing is common with glaciers, the collapse of a large section of Larsen C could speed the flow of the Larsen Glacier towards the Antarctic Ocean.
As Dr Paul Holland, an ice and ocean modeller at the British Antarctic Survey, said in a recent press release:
“Iceberg calving is a normal part of the glacier life cycle, and there is every chance that Larsen C will remain stable and this ice will regrow. However, it is also possible that this iceberg calving will leave Larsen C in an unstable configuration. If that happens, further iceberg calving could cause a retreat of Larsen C. We won’t be able to tell whether Larsen C is unstable until the iceberg has calved and we are able to understand the behavior of the remaining ice. The stability of ice shelves is important because they resist the flow of the grounded ice inland. After the collapse of Larsen B, its tributary glaciers accelerated, contributing to sea-level rise.”
One of the greatest concerns about climate change is the feedback mechanisms it creates. In addition to increased warming trends caused by rising levels of CO² in the atmosphere, the melting of glaciers and the breakup of ice shelves can have a pronounced effect on sea levels. In the end, the depletion of glaciers in Antarctica could have dramatic consequences for the rest of the planet.
In the northern hemisphere of Mars, between the planet’s southern highlands and the northern lowlands, is a hilly region known as Colles Nilli. This boundary-marker is a very prominent feature on Mars, as it is several kilometers in height and surrounded by the remains of ancient glaciers.
And thanks to the Mars Express mission, it now looks like this region is also home to some buried glaciers. Such was the conclusion after the orbiting spacecraft took images that revealed a series of eroded blocks along this boundary, which scientists have deduced are chunks of ice that became buried over time.
The Mars Express images show a plethora of these features along the north-south boundary. They also reveal several features that hint at the presence of buried ice and erosion – such as layered deposits as well as ridges and troughs. Similar features are also found in nearby impact craters. All of these are believed to have been caused by an ancient glacier as it retreated several hundred million years ago.
It is further reasoned that these remaining ice deposits were covered by debris that was deposited from the plateau as it eroded. Wind-borne dust was also deposited over time, which is believed to be the result of volcanic activity. This latter source is evidenced by steaks of dark material deposited around the blocks, as well as dark sand dunes spotted within the impact craters.
Similar features are believed to exist within many boundary regions on Mars, and are believed to represent periods of glaciation that took place over the course of eons. And this is not the first time buried glaciers have been spotted on Mars.
For instance, back in 2008, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) used its ground-penetrating radar to locate water ice under blankets or rocky debris, and at latitudes far lower than any that had been previously identified. At the time, this information shed light on a long-standing mystery about Mars, which was the presence of what are called “aprons”.
These gently-sloping rocky deposit, which are found at the bases of taller features, were first noticed by NASA’s Viking orbiters during the 1970s. A prevailing theory has been that these aprons are the result of rocky debris lubricated by small amounts of ice.
Combined with this latest info taken from the northern hemisphere, it would appear that there is plenty of ice deposits all across the surface of Mars. The presence (and prevalence) of these icy remnants offer insight into Mars’ geological past, which – like Earth – involved some “ice ages”.
The Mars Express mission has been actively surveying the surface of Mars since 2003. On October 19th, it will be playing a vital role as the Exomars mission inserts itself into Martian orbit and the Schiaparelli lander makes its descent and landing on the Martian surface.
Alongside the MRO and the ExoMars Orbiter, it will be monitoring signals from the lander to confirm its safe arrival, and will relay information sent from the surface during the course of its mission.
The ESA will be broadcasting this event live. And given that this mission will be the ESA’s first robotic lander to reach Mars, it should prove to be an exciting event!
When beholding the sheer size and majesty of mountains, ancient humans could not help but feel that they were standing in the presence of something… godlike. And within the belief systems of many ancient cultures, it was generally felt that mountains were something spiritual – either serving as the home of the Gods, a result of their activity, or a place to get closer to God.
Thanks to modern geology, we now know the true story of how mountains are formed. Simply put, they are the result of tectonic forces or volcanism. But knowing this has not diminished their impressive and awe-inspiring nature. When a geological formation is created through forces that can only be described as titanic, this is to be expected. But just how are mountains formed?
In truth, there are three ways in which mountains are formed, which correspond to the types of mountains in question. These are known as volcanic, fold and block mountains. All of these are the result of plate tectonics, where compressional forces, isostatic uplift and intrusion of igneous matter forces surface rock upward, creating a landform higher than the surrounding features.
Over the course of many million years, these uplifted sections are eroded by the elements – wind, rain, ice and gravity. These gradually wear the surface of the mountains down, cause the surface to be younger than the rocks that form them, and lead to the types of formations and distributions we are familiar with today.
Volcanic mountains are formed when a tectonic plate is pushed beneath another (or above a mid-ocean ridge or hotspot) where magma is forced to the surface. When the magma reaches the surface, it often builds a volcanic mountain, such as s shield volcano or a stratovolcano. Examples of this sort of mountains include Mount Fuji in Japan, Mauna Kea in Hawaii, Nyamuragira in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Skjaldbreiður in Iceland and Mount Etna in Sicily.
At other times, the rising magma solidifies below the surface and forms dome mountains, where material is pushed up from the force of the build-up beneath it. Examples of this formation include Navajo Mountain in San Juan County, Utah; the Chaitén lava dome of Chile, Torfajökull in Iceland, and Mount St. Helens in Washington State.
As the name suggests, fold mountains occur when two tectonic plates collide at a convergent plate boundary, causing the crust to overthicken. This process forces the less dense crust to float on top of the denser mantle rocks – with material being forced upwards to form hills, plateaus or mountains – while a greater volume of material is forced downward into the mantle.
The Jura Mountains, a series of sub-parallel mountain ridges located in the Alps, are an example of fold mountains. Other examples include the “Simply Folded Belt” of the Zagros mountains, which extends from northern Syria and southern Turkey to eastern Iran and the Persian Gulf. There is also the Akwapim-Togo ranges in Ghana and the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians in the Eastern United States.
But perhaps most famous is the Himalayan mountain chain, located between northern India and Nepal. This chain formed as a result of the collision between the Indian subcontinent and Asia some 25 million years ago, and has given rise to the tallest mountain in the world – Mt. Everest.
Block mountains are caused by faults in the crust, a seam where rocks can move past each other. Also known as rifting, this process occurs when rocks on one side of a fault rise relative to the other. The uplifted blocks become block mountains (also known as horsts) while the intervening dropped blocks are known as graben (i.e. depressed regions).
Examples of this type of terrain can be found in the Upper Rhine valley, the Vosges mountains in France, the Black Forest in Germany, and the Vindhya and Satpura horsts in India. There is also the East African Rift, an active continental rift zone with several active volcanoes that extends from Eritrea to Mozambique.
As noted, the final way in which mountains are formed is through erosion. This occurs during and after an uplift, where a newly formed mountainous region is subjected to the effects of wind, water, ice, and gravity. These forces actively shape the surface of mountain ranges, wearing down the exposed surfaces, depositing sediment in alluvial flows, and leading to the formation of characteristic landforms.
These include pyramidal peaks, knife-edge arêtes, and bowl-shaped cirques that can contain lakes. Plateau mountains, such as the Catskills, are formed from the erosion of an uplifted plateau. And after millions of years of erosion, mountains may cease to exist entirely.
Given the size and scale of a mountain, the immense forces involved in their creation, and the immense amount of time it takes to shape and form them, it is little wonder why they are considered such a big deal. Between their religious significance (i.e. Mount Zion, Mount Olympus, Mount Ararat, and Mauna Kea, to name a few), their scenic value, the challenge they present, and their importance to the Earth sciences, these geological formations continue to enjoy a special place in our hearts, minds and culture.
As we explore other planets, we have also found new and impressive mountain formations that have taught us much about the geological activity and composition of other worlds. For example, there the volcanic mountain on Mars known as Olympus Mons, which just happens to be the largest mountain in the Solar System. And this is merely a drop in the bucket. Wherever there’s a geologically active planet, there’s mountains to be found!
As the hazy, lazy days of summer come to a close, the New Horizons team released a brand new set of incredible images of a very atmospheric Pluto.
Can you believe the detail in these photos? Back-lit by the Sun, we see icy plains, rugged mountains, glacier-cut terrain and multiple layers of haze just like those on a steamy August afternoon.
The scene measures 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) across and was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 km) on July 15 just after closest approach. Because backlighting highlights fine aerosols suspended in the atmosphere (think of seeing your breath on a cold winter day against the Sun), these photos show the amazing complexity of Pluto’s atmosphere with more than a dozen thin haze layers extending from near the ground to at least 60 miles (100 km) above the surface.
“This image really makes you feel you are there, at Pluto, surveying the landscape for yourself,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern in a press release today. “But this image is also a scientific bonanza, revealing new details about Pluto’s atmosphere, mountains, glaciers and plains.”
I find the hazes the most amazing aspect of the photos. They remind me of crepuscular rays, those beams of sunshine that shine between breaks in the clouds near sunset and sunrise. It chills and thrills me to the bone to see such earthly sights on a bitterly cold orb more than 3 billion miles from home.
But that’s not all that’s close to our hearts on Pluto. The photos reveal nitrogen ice apparently flowing downhill from mountainous highlands into a broad, smooth basin. Combined with other recently downloaded pictures, this new image (above) provides evidence for a remarkably Earth-like “hydrological” cycle on Pluto – but involving soft and exotic ices, including nitrogen, rather than water ice.
Nitrogen ice in the vast, relatively smooth Sputnik Planum may have vaporized in sunlight and then redeposited as ice in the bright, rugged region to its east. The new Ralph imager panorama also reveals glaciers flowing back from the blanketed mountain region into Sputnik Planum; these features are similar to the frozen streams on the margins of ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica.
Who knew that by going to Pluto we’d see such familiarity? But there you have it.
Greenland’s glaciers may contribute more to future sea level rise than once thought, despite earlier reports that their steady seaward advance is a bit slower than expected. This is just more sobering news on the current state of Earth’s ice from the same researchers that recently announced the “unstoppable” retreat of West Antarctic glaciers.
Using data collected by several international radar-mapping satellites and NASA’s airborne Operation IceBridge surveys, scientists at NASA and the University of California, Irvine have discovered deep canyons below the ice sheet along Greenland’s western coast. These canyons cut far inland, and are likely to drive ocean-feeding glaciers into the sea faster and for longer periods of time as Earth’s climate continues to warm.
Some previous models of Greenland’s glaciers expected their retreat to slow once they receded to higher altitudes, making their overall contribution to sea level increase uncertain. But with this new map of the terrain far below the ice, modeled with radar soundings and high-resolution ice motion data, it doesn’t seem that the ice sheets’ recession will halt any time soon.
According to the team’s paper, the findings “imply that the outlet glaciers of Greenland, and the ice sheet as a whole, are probably more vulnerable to ocean thermal forcing and peripheral thinning than inferred previously from existing numerical ice-sheet models.”
“The glaciers of Greenland are likely to retreat faster and farther inland than anticipated, and for much longer, according to this very different topography we have discovered. This has major implications, because the glacier melt will contribute much more to rising seas around the globe.”
– Mathieu Morlighem, project scientist, University of California, Irving
Many of the newly-discovered canyons descend below sea level and extend over 65 miles (100 kilometers) inland, making them vulnerable — like the glaciers in West Antarctica — to undercutting by warmer ocean currents.
The team’s findings were published on May 18 in a report titled Deeply Incised Submarine Glacial Valleys Beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet in the journal Nature Geoscience.
How fast is Greenland’s ice sheet melting in response to climate change, and how is it recovering? A new NASA rover with the friendly name of GROVER (Greeland Rover and Goddard Remotely Operated Vehicle for Exploration and Research) is going to try to figure that out.
GROVER will rove across a small area of the massive ice sheet at a location called Summit Camp, which is a National Science Foundation outpost. On board it has ground-penetrating radar that is intended to figure out how the snow builds up in layers through time.
“Robots like GROVER will give us a new tool for glaciology studies,” stated Lora Koenig, a glaciologist at Goddard and science advisor on the project.
The student-designed project came to be during development phases in 2010 and 2011, principally at Boise State University in Idaho. At six feet tall, it’s way more massive than its Sesame Street namesake: it tips the scale at 800 pounds, including solar panels, and has two snowmobile tracks built in to move around.
“GROVER is just like a spacecraft but it has to operate on the ground,” stated Michael Comberiate, a retired NASA engineer and manager of Goddard’s Engineering Boot Camp.
“It has to survive unattended for months in a hostile environment, with just a few commands to interrogate it and find out its status and give it some directions for how to accommodate situations it finds itself in.”
Studies began on May 3 and will continue through June 8.