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Glaciers on Mars’ South Pole Flow Just like on Earth

A crater in Meridiani Planum Mars. HiRISE.

The longest glacier is about 200 kilometers long and about 40 kilometers across. These are big!

A paper by Planetary Science Institute Research Scientist Isaac Smith says glaciers of carbon dioxide are moving across Mars’ south polar region, causing deposits kilometers thick. The researcher suggests that this process could have been going on for more than 600,000 years.

“The CO2 deposits that were first identified in 2011 turn out to be flowing today, just like glaciers on Earth,” revealed Smith, lead author of “Carbon Dioxide Ice Glaciers at the South Pole of Mars” which appears in the Journal for Geophysical Research – Planets.

“Approximately 600,000 years ago, CO2 ice started forming at the Martian south pole. Due to climate cycles, the ice has increased in volume and mass several times, interrupted by periods of mass loss through sublimation,” Smith said.

“If the ice had never flowed, it would mostly be where it was originally deposited, and the thickest ice would only be about 45 meters thick. Instead, because it flowed downhill into basins and spiral troughs – curvilinear basins – where it ponded, it was able to form deposits reaching one kilometer thick.

“The glaciers have enough mass that if sublimated, they would double the atmospheric pressure of the planet. It’s a stunning quantity, and a 2018 paper by PSI Senior Scientist Than Putzig measured it most accurately,” Smith said.

“The longest glacier is about 200 kilometers long and about 40 kilometers across. These are big! That activity is ongoing, but flow rates probably peaked about 400,000 years ago when the deposition was greatest. We’re in a slow period because the ice is decreasing in mass, and that slows down glaciers.”

The carbon dioxide ice flow laws and strength properties of carbon dioxide ice were investigated in a recent study conducted in part by PSI (funded to Smith).

Those studies show that CO2 ice flows close to 100 times faster than H2O ice on high slopes and in Martian conditions. As a result, CO2 ice behaves like glaciers, but the rest of the H2O ice cap that supports it is stationary.

The results of glacial models, developed by NASA using their Ice Sheet and Sea-Level System Model and adapted by Smith to work on Mars and with CO2, showed that typical methods could not shift CO2 ice.

“Atmospheric deposition would put the ice in a pattern we don’t see. It would be much more evenly spread and thinner. What the glacier interpretation provides is a mechanism to move the ice from high places into the lower basins that are also at a lower latitude,” Smith said.

“If atmospheric deposition were the only process acting on the ice, then most of it would be found at the highest latitude and highest elevation. That’s just not the case. The ice is flowing downhill into basins, much like water flows downhill into lakes. Only glacial flow can explain the distribution we found in 2018.”

Several surface features discovered by Smith and his team were very similar to features found on terrestrial glaciers. A topographic profile, a crevasse, or a ridge that resembles a terrestrial feature are among these. Using these as a basis, the results were more substantial and more reliable.

In the Solar System, Earth, Mars, and Pluto have actively flowing ice, but they aren’t likely the only ones. In the solar system, there are a variety of ice types. As the number of dwarf plants grows, it’s likely some of them will have glaciers made of carbon monoxide or methane, which would be even more exotic than the dry ice glaciers recently found on Mars.

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