Mars Has Bizarre “Swiss Cheese” Terrain. You can Thank Water, Carbon Dioxide and 500,000 years of Climate History for That

The HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this unusual crater or pit on the surface of Mars. Frozen carbon dioxide gives the region its unique "Swiss cheese" like appearance. Image:NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
The HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this unusual crater or pit on the surface of Mars. Frozen carbon dioxide gives the region its unique "Swiss cheese" like appearance. Image:NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Seen from space, regions of Mars around the south pole have a bizarre, pitted “Swiss cheese” appearance. These formations come from alternating massive deposits of CO2 ice and water ice, similar to different layers of a cake. For decades, planetary scientists wondered how this formation was possible, as it was long believed that this layering would not be stable for long periods of time.

But in 2020, Peter Buhler, a Research Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, and a team of researchers figured out the dynamics of how the Swiss cheese-like terrain formed: it was due to changes in Mars’ axial tilt that caused changes in the atmospheric pressure, which alternately produced water and CO2 ice. However, they were only able to deduce the rate of CO2 and water deposits over millions of years, which is about ten times longer than Mars’ orbit cycles.

Now, in a follow up study, Buhler was able to model how the frozen carbon dioxide and water deposits grow and shrink over 100,000 year-long cycles of Mars’s polar tilt. The model allowed the researchers to determine how water and carbon dioxide have moved around on Mars over the past 510,000 years.

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How Much Carbon Dioxide Snow Falls Every Winter on Mars?

Mars’ south polar ice cap. Credit: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin /

Like Earth, Mars experiences climatic variations during the course of a year because of the obliquity of its rotational axis. This leads to the annual deposition/sublimation of the CO2 ice/snow, which results in the formation of the seasonal polar caps. Similarly, these variations in temperature result in interaction between the atmosphere and the polar ice caps, which has a seasonal effect on surface features.

On Mars, however, things work a little differently. In addition to water ice, a significant percentage of the Martian polar ice caps are made up of frozen carbon dioxide (“dry ice”). Recently, an international team of scientists used data from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) mission to measure how the planet’s polar ice caps grow and recede annually. Their results could provide new insights into how the Martian climate varies due to seasonal change.

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Clear Signs of Recent Erosion on Mars

Erosion can take many forms.  Most commonly known is water wearing away the sides of creeks or lakes.  But wind can erode just as effectively, especially if it carries dust particles that can eat away at otherwise solid objects.  While this wind-driven process is most commonly observed on Earth, it plays a role in the history of most other rocky bodies that have an atmosphere.  Recently, a team lead scientists from the Planetary Science Institute found evidence for some erosion from between 50,000 and a few million years ago in Mars’s polar ice cap.  That is a blink of the eye by geological standards.

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Beautiful Image of Ice at Mars’ Northern Polar Cap

This image shows part of the ice cap sitting at Mars’ north pole, complete with bright swathes of ice, dark troughs and depressions, and signs of strong winds and stormy activity. Image Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin , CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

A new image from the ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft shows how beautiful, and desolate, Mars can appear. It also highlights some of the natural process that shape the planet’s surface. The image is of the northern polar region, and it features bright patches of ice, deep dark troughs, and evidence of storms and strong winds.

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Mars ‘Hide and Seek’ Ice Cap Affected by Winds and Water

Mars northern polar ice cap. Credit: ESA


Mars has permanent ice caps at both poles composed mostly of solid carbon dioxide, and mysteriously, a large portion of the northern cap disappears early in the northern Martian spring followed later by its sudden reappearance. Scientists may have solved this mystery, saying that strong winds and Mars’ active water cycle may play a part in ‘come and go’ polar cap.

Earlier this year, another group of scientists from the University of Texas found that so-called katabatic winds — a wind that carries high density air from a higher elevation down a slope under the force of gravity – were responsible for the formation of giant swirls or troughs in the northern polar cap, as well as a huge chasm that is also visible. Those winds may also play a part in the regeneration of the ice cap.

Seasonal ice deposits play a major role in the water cycle of the planet. Every Martian year, alternatively during northern and southern winter, a significant part of the atmosphere condenses on the surface in the form of frost and snow. These seasonal ice deposits, which can be up to one meter thick, are mainly composed of carbon dioxide with minor amounts of water and dust. During spring, the deposits sublimate becoming a substantial source of water vapor, in particular in the northern hemisphere of the planet.

Sudden reappearance of the carbon dioxide ice signature between 'solar longitudes' 59.2 degrees and 60.2 degrees (which corresponds to a time lapse of approximately two Martian days) in the spiral troughs structure of the North polar cap. Credit: ESA

Dr. Bernard Schmitt and Mr. Thomas Appéré analyzed data taken with the OMEGA instrument on board ESA’s Mars Express, honing in on two northern Martian regions. Before the Mars Express mission, scientists monitored the evolution of the seasonal deposits by looking at the albedo (reflectivity) and temperature changes of the surface, as the ice deposits appear much brighter and are colder than the surrounding defrosted terrains.

The first Martian region that the scientists observed is located on Gemina Lingula, a Northern plateau, where a peculiar evolution of the carbon dioxide ice deposits was observed.

“During spring the ice signature disappeared from our data, but the surface temperature was still cold enough to sustain plenty of CO2 ice,” said Schmitt. “We concluded that a thick layer of something else, either dust or water ice was overlaid. If it was dust then it would also hide water ice and the surface of the planet would become darker. None of these happened so we concluded that a layer of water ice was hiding the CO2 ice. We had to wait until the weather gets warm enough on Mars for the water to vaporize as well, and then the carbon dioxide signatures re-appeared in our data.”

Soon after spring sunrise, the solar radiation hitting the surface of Mars warms enough the CO2 ice lying on the top layer to cause it to vaporize. But the water ice needs higher temperatures to sublimate, so a fine grained layer of water ice gradually forms hiding the carbon dioxide ice still lying beneath it.

“A layer only 2 tenths of a millimeter thick is enough to completely hide the CO2 ice. Also some water that has been vaporized at lower, warmer, Martian latitudes condenses as it moves northward and may be cold trapped on top of the CO2 ice,” said Appéré.

The second region analyzed by the team is located in the spiral troughs structure of the North permanent cap. A similar situation was observed but the carbon dioxide ice re-appeared very quickly here after its initial disappearance.

“This hide-and-seek game didn’t make much sense to us. It wasn’t cold enough for CO2 ice to condense again, neither warm enough for water ice to sublimate,” said Schmitt.

(a) Simulation of katabatic (downhill) winds. Colour bar: friction velocity from 0.1 to 0.6 m/s. (b) Localization of regions where early disappearances (blue) and sudden reappearances (orange) of the carbon dioxide ice signature are observed. Credit: ESA

“We concluded that somehow the water ice layer was removed,” said Appéré. “The topography of the North permanent Martian cap is well-suited to entail the formation of strong katabatic winds.”

Another scientist, Dr. Aymeric Spiga, used a model to simulate those winds and he indeed confirmed the sudden re-appearances of CO2 ice where strong katabatic winds blow.

This is just the first step in figuring out exactly how the polar cap disappears and reappears on Mars.

“To decipher the present and past water cycles on Mars and improve our weather models on the planet, one needs to have a good understanding of the seasonal ice deposits dynamics, how they change in space and time,” said Schmitt. “We are confident that our results will make a significant contribution in this direction.”

Source: European Planetary Science Congress