A long thin cloud on Mars. Image via Flickr/ ESA/ DLR/ FU Berlin/ J. Cowart, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

Mars experienced a major climate change 400,000 years ago

The findings reveal a dramatic shift in the prevailing wind direction on the southern Utopian Plain.


The latest data from Mars suggest that the red planet experienced a major climate change some 400,000 years ago.

A seismic climate alteration approximately 400,000 years ago on Mars, marking the end of its latest glacial period, is suggested by a comprehensive analysis of data from the Zhurong rover. The rover’s evaluation of dunes on Mars’s southern Utopian Plain suggests prevailing winds underwent significant modifications alongside this climate shift.

Analyzing Martian Dunes

An international team of researchers, comprising members from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ National Astronomical Observatories, Institute of Geology and Geophysics, and Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, partnered with Brown University. Their mission: to gauge the Martian dunes’ surface structure and chemical make-up, ascertaining the ages of sand structures and the dominant wind directions in various locations around Zhurong’s landing zone.

Unveiling a Shift in Wind Direction

Their findings reveal a dramatic shift in the prevailing wind direction on the southern Utopian Plain. The wind altered its course by nearly 70°, moving from northeast to northwest. This wind shift reshaped the crescent-shaped dunes, formed during the previous ice age, into dark, longitudinal ridges post the latest Martian Ice Age.


Mars Climate Study: Vital to Understanding Earth’s Evolution

The investigation and understanding of Mars’ climate evolution have long held interest. Mars, our solar system’s closest Earth analogue, presents an opportunity to learn more about the evolution and history of Earth and other planetary bodies, says Prof. Li Chunlai, Principal Investigator of the study from NAOC.

Zhurong Rover: A Gamechanger in Mars Research

Prior to this, the inability to sample and measure geological formations on Mars directly hindered attempts to study the Martian climate. The new on-site data, obtained from the Martian surface using high-resolution orbital cameras and a suite of tools on the Zhurong rover, offer fresh insights into the planet’s climate processes.

The Role of Mars’ Rotational Axis in Climate Shift

The research team’s estimates suggest that a shift in the rotational axis angle of Mars might have ended its most recent ice age. This change’s effects were recorded in the southern Utopian Plain’s dunes’ morphology, orientation, physical properties, and layering.

The study’s design is to merge rover-scale data on dune formations and weather conditions. This approach confirms a wind direction change at the end of the last ice age and refines general circulation models used for predicting fine-scale changes in seasonal wind direction. The consistency between prevailing wind data, dune stratigraphy, and the presence of ice and dust layers in the planet’s mid and higher latitudes proves vital.

Investigating Mars’ Ancient Climate

A large part of ongoing efforts is dedicated to understanding the ancient climate of Mars during the Amazonian epoch, which began between 3.55 and 1.8 billion years ago and still continues. Understanding this epoch is critical for explaining Mars’s current landscape, volatile matter reservoirs, and atmospheric state, and for correlating these present-day observations with models of Mars’s ancient climate.


The Way Forward

On-site studies of Mars’s surface offer invaluable scientific insights, and the Zhurong rover’s data collection task is far from over. “We plan to continue studying both the Amazonian and present-day climate, aiming to enrich our understanding of Martian climate history spanning the last two billion years, including its environment and processes,” stated LI.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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