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Global warming on Mars, ice caps melting

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

Mars is not warming globally.

Climate Myth...

Mars is warming

"Some people think that our planet is suffering from a fever.  Now scientists are telling us that Mars is experiencing its own planetary warming: Martian warming. It seems scientists have noticed recently that quite a few planets in our solar system seem to be heating up a bit, including Pluto. 

NASA says the Martian South Pole’s “ice cap” has been shrinking for three summers in a row. Maybe Mars got its fever from earth. If so, I guess Jupiter’s caught the same cold, because it’s warming up too, like Pluto."  (Fred Thompson).

It is hard to understand how anyone could claim global warming is happening on Mars when we can’t even agree what’s happening on the planet we live on. Yet they do, and the alleged reasoning is this; if other planets are warming up, then there is some solar system-wide phenomena at work – and therefore that it isn’t human activity causing climate change here on Earth.

The broadest counter argument depends on a simple premise: we know so little about Mars that it's impossible to say what trends in climate the planet is experiencing, or why changes occur. We do have information from various orbiting missions and the few lander explorations to date, yet even this small amount of data has been misunderstood, in terms of causal complexity and significance.

There are a few basic points about the climate on Mars that are worth reviewing:

  • Planets do not orbit the sun in perfect circles, sometimes they are slightly closer to the sun, sometimes further away. This is called orbital eccentricity and it contributes far greater changes to Martian climate than to that of the Earth because variations in Mars' orbit are five times greater than the Earth.
  • Mars has no oceans and only a very thin atmosphere, which means there is very little thermal inertia – the climate is much more susceptible to change caused by external influences.
  • The whole planet is subject to massive dust storms, and these have many causal effects on the planet’s climate, very little of which we understand yet.
  • We have virtually no historical data about the climate of Mars prior to the 1970s, except for drawings (and latterly, photographs) that reveal changes in gross surface features (i.e. features that can be seen from Earth through telescopes). It is not possible to tell if current observations reveal frequent or infrequent events, trends or outliers.

A picture is worth a thousand words, but only if you understand what it is saying

The global warming argument was strongly influenced by a paper written by a team led by NASA scientist Lori Fenton, who observed that changes in albedo – the property of light surfaces to reflect sunlight e.g. ice and snow – were shown when comparing 1977pictures of the Martian surface taken by the Viking spacecraft, to a 1999 image compiled by the Mars Global Surveyor. The pictures revealed that in 1977 the surface was brighter than in 1999, and from this Fenton used a general circulation model to suggest that between 1977 and 1999 the planet had experienced a warming trend of 0.65 degrees C. Fenton attributed the warming to surface dust causing a change in the planet's albedo.

Unfortunately, Fenton’s conclusions were undermined by the failure to distinguish between climate (trends) and weather (single events). Taking two end points – pictures from 1977 and 1999 – did not reveal any kind of trend, merely the weather on two specific Martian days. Without the intervening data – which was not available – it is impossible to say whether there was a trend in albedo reduction, or what part the prodigious dust storms played in the intervening period between the first and second photographs. Indeed, when you look at all the available data – sparse though it is – there is no discernable long term trend in albedo.

At this time, there is little empirical evidence that Mars is warming. Mars' climate is primarily driven by dust and albedo, not solar variations, and we know the sun is not heating up all the planets in our solar system because we can accurately measure the sun’s output here on Earth.

Basic rebuttal written by GPWayne

Last updated on 1 August 2013 by gpwayne. View Archives

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Planet wide dust storm

A good example of how dust affects Mars climate: over 2007, Mars suffered a titanic dust storm that engulfed the entire planet. The dust storm contributed to a temporary warming effect around Mars, raising the temperature of the atmosphere by around 20-30°C. Interestingly, whereas the atmosphere of the planet heats up, the surface of the planet cools down because it receives much less solar heat.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Mark Richardson for his advice and materials on Martian climate. Thanks also to Jon for the heads-up on Mark Richardson's latest AGU presentation.

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Comments 26 to 50 out of 56:

  1. Just wanted to add to this thread the study that posits Uranus cooling from 1983 to 1998. "The secular increase in temperature seen during the period 1977–1983 has reversed." http://www.boulder.swri.edu/~layoung/eprint/ur149/Young2001Uranus.pdf I brought this up at WUWT a few years ago when this meme was being trotted out more often, and the responses were that Uranus has particular orbital characteristics that might account for its 'anomalous' climate behaviour. When I replied that other planets may likewise have characteristics particular to them that account for (apparent) warming, no one responded.
  2. While extraterrestrial climates and weather are interesting in their own right, and atmospheric compositions and temperature responses can be used to calibrate physical models here on Earth, it is irrelevant to us here whether or not it is warming on them as a result of the sun's varying output - we have infinitely better measurements of solar radiation here and its effect on our planet, which is what matters. It's just an invention that denialists use to try to mislead gullible people with something that sounds believable without all the facts. Whatever other planets are doing, in spite of the Sun's output having been at its lowest for years, our Earth is still warming.
  3. Interesting thread people. But one slight problem - I have been watching Mars since a young lad in the Apollo moon landings. Look at the photos of Mars in the 1970's - big beautifol really obvious ice caps. Now look at Mars - pathetic small and mostly non-existent ice caps. Why? [snip]
    Response: [Dikran Marsupial] Off-topic gish gallop snipped. Please familiarise yourself with the comments policy. SkS is for scientific discussion, not rhetorical debate. Data and references to scientific litterature that support your assertions are always much more convincing than anecdotal evidence.
  4. Well, let's look at the photos, or images at least: Mars, 1873: Mars, 2007: So from 1873 to 2007, Mar's NH polar cap has approximately the same size, while its SH polar cap has greatly expanded. But what about images like this: According to AGW denier, Nasif Nahle, this is a ...
    "Sequence of photos illustrating the Global Warming on Mars. Observe how Mars' Polar Caps have been melting since 1990, the same phenomenon has been occurring on Earth."
    Except, when I look at the pictures, I see the large expansion of the SH polar cap from 1995-2001, followed by its contraction. I also see the initial contraction of the NH polar cap, followed by its expansion, after which it is hard to say what it does because it is hidden behind the limb of the planet. Clearly, the polar caps of Mars are very dynamic. The rapidity with which they change their extent can be seen in this montage showing the NH cap over a period of six months: As we know, by 2001,it had already regained its lost extent, and no doubt lost it again before regaining it in 2007. AGW deniers, like Nahle, are attempting to portray images of seasonal variation as proof of global warming on Mars. But if you look at all the evidence, its easy to see through their parlour trick.
  5. Scott Duncan #28: "pathetic small and mostly non-existent ice caps." This is really big news, or at least it was in 2003: Mars is melting Like Earth, Mars has seasons that cause its polar caps to wax and wane. "It's late spring at the south pole of Mars," says planetary scientist Dave Smith of the Goddard Space Flight Center. "The polar cap is receding because the springtime sun is shining on it." The south pole is indeed more dynamic: The coincidence of aphelion with northern summer solstice means that the climate in the northern hemisphere is more temperate than in the southern hemisphere. In the south, summers are hot and quick, winters long and cold. Seasons! Who'd have thought that?
  6. I'm a bit bored, so I've decided to actually show the "big beautifol really obvious ice caps" Duncan claims to have seen in the 70's. First from the Mariner missions in 1969: The two images where taken be separate craft on flybys, within six days of each other in 1969. Then from the Viking program in 1980: Viking even produced a mosaic map of Mars, showing the massive polar ice caps that existed just 30 years ago: If you think I am laughing at the intellectual bankruptcy of deniers like Nahle who try to flog this dead horse, you are right.
  7. Thank you Tom, this is the point I was trying to convey in post #11 up there a few years ago. Intellectual bankruptcy is the word indeed.
  8.         Thinking 'outside the box' is a school not often visited by some.   In all the discussions of planetary global warming (i.e.  Earth, Mars Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto) very little attention is given to our solar system's travel above, below, and around the galactic plane on its cyclical route round the Galaxy. (approx 240k+ years).  Conditions along the path are hard to predict since historic records are only now being established.  Therefore any theories or calculations of planetary temperatures from volcanic, atmospheres, rings of dust, or human intereactions, etc. must include calculations of the density and  position of materials encountered along our solar systems path and its interactions with the Sun's activities.  These conditions make it extremely difficult to predict any astronomical algorithm's absolute forecasting the reason for Earth's warming trends.  In other words,  the best thought humans put forth probably has not reached a definite answer in totallity to the question, "Why is Earth warming?" 

  9. Whether travels on the galactic path had anything to do with past climate change is harder to decide, but we can see clearly that it has very little to do with post-1970 climate change. Why? because we have good measurements of the climate determinants. The only "space" factor affecting climate is TSI, whether from change of angle, change of solar luminense or "space dust". This is accurately measured by satellites since 70's and is stable if not decreasing (see "its the sun" argument), and yet the earth warms. Why look to weird, unknowable, out-there sources of warming when there is a perfectly reasonable, physically plausible solution coming right out of the smoke stack? Or to put it another way, we have measurably increased the energy flux onto the surface of the earth with increased GHGs. What mechanism do you propose by which this would not cause warming?

  10. We have NOT been measuring the other planets temperatures systematically since the 70's.... and I did not state the the majority of EARTH warming does originate with our mismanagement of the planet.  I was only stating that IF other planets in our system might all be experiencing warming, then we should  look at other possibilities be they "weird" or undiscovered! 

  11. Novemdecellist @33, there is a very simple reason to think that our motion through the galaxy has very little do do with current changes in climate.  Specifically, it will take us 1360 years to travel just one light year at our current rate of travell.  In the direction we are travelling, there are no nebulae to obscuring local stars, so we know the nearest nebula to be many light years away.  Apparently the nearest nebula of any sort, L134, is around 300 light years away, and not in our direction of travel.

    It follows from this that the radiation, and molecular density of the space through which we are travelling has not changed appreciably in hundreds of thousands of year; and will not change appreciably for hundreds for thousands more years except in the cases of nearby supernovas.  And if it is not changing, it is not the cause of change.

  12. And also worth noting (as this and articles on other planets show) that real evidence for climate change on the other planets is somewhat lacking. See the intermediate versions.

  13. Also worth noting are the astronomers - who spend their careers looking at the stars, including spectral and intensity measurements. If we had entered a nebula (that was somehow unobserved at a distance) the reduction in starlight over the last 40 years would have been quite noticeable. Not to mention spectral changes in sunlight, measured either from the surface or from satellite. 

    Given a complete lack of evidence for a hypothesis of interstellar dust/climate interaction, I would classify it on the same level as "climate elves". 

  14. Novemdecillist...   Is there something to give you indication that others are not thinking outside this particular box?  I would suggest that scientists have made careers out of looking into a wide range of boxes to see if there could possibly be other explanations for what they see.  In fact, other planets warming would be one of the first in a long series of other boxes researchers would check into.

  15. Tom Curtis #29:

    If all the photos in your figure 3 were taken close to opposition (when Mars is closest to the Earth), each of them must have been taken about 780 days later than the previous one, or one Martian year plus 93 days. That is like taking photos of the Earth with 415 days intervals or 50 days later every year.

    Based on the surface markings it seems to me that the photo from 2001 must have been taken close to northern hemisphere autumn equinox on Mars, corresponding to late September on Earth.

    That means that the photos from 1995, 1997 and 1999 roughly corresponds to late April, mid June and early August respectively (spring and summer in NH), while the photos from 2003 and 2005 corresponds to early November and late December (spring and summer in SH).

    In other words, the changes in this photo sequence are simply caused by the seasons, and have nothing to do with any climate change on Mars!

    I wonder how this guy Nasif Nahle would explain away that?

  16. HK @40, you raise a very good point.  It is likely that most of the differences between polar cap size in Mar's observations will be due to seasonal cycles, something Nahle has failed to consider (along with the majority of the evidence on the changes in the size of Mars's icecaps over time.

  17. Thank you for a quick response, Tom!

    Yes, it is meaningless to use photo sequences like that as proof of climate change on Mars unless the photos are taken close to one Martian year (687 days) apart. In the 2005 photo, the south polar cap (mostly frozen CO2) had been exposed to the midnight sun for nearly 6 months. No wonder it had almost disappeared!

  18. Hi There, I know it has been a couple of years, but since bad arguments against AGW tend to stick around, I recently tried to explain to someone how mars' specific characteristics make it a bad earth analog in this case. I was then tripped up by the fact that we do use Venus as an analog for the greenhouse effect. I'm sure there's an explanation of how these things do not refute each other, how it isn't hypocritical to use both concepts in explaining our understanding of AGW, but I'm having trouble wording it. Can anyone help me out. Why do we accept Venus as an example in support of AGW hypothesis, but reject Mars as an example in opposition. Thanks!

  19. I think you need to explain your problem a little more. GHG play a part on both Venus and Mars. Exactly the same equations are used to calculate the change of surface temperature due to GHE on Venus, Mars, Earth (or any other planet). Try here for detailed comparisons. I dont see a claim that is using Venus to support AGW and Mars to reject it.

  20. @43,

     I would request a link to where Venus is used as an example of the greenhouse effect, thanx !!

  21. Well Venus is hardly an "analog". It is often used as an example of a "runaway greenhouse effect" - positive feedback boiling oceans and then remaining too hot for condensing of any GH gases. Note that scientific opinion so far is that there is no chance of this happening here due to anthropomorphic activities.

  22. A good discussion of Venus' greenhouse effect is here, by Chris Colose.

  23. GPWayne, your link to Fred Thompson in the green box no longer works.

    Response:

    [GT] Thanks, we will update the link.

  24. The problem with a lot of these arguments on Mars heating is there is no clear effort to account for the distance greater distance and size of the orbit. Yes mars wobbles and it has an impact, but the orbit is longer and the changes happen slower. The thinner atmosphere works both ways in the argument as does the smaller planet size. The intensity of the solar radiation is also less. I have looked over the reports and I do not see any real attempt to make this an apples to apples comparison that actually proves either case decisively. The biggest weakness though is on the side of the critics of Mars warming. The simple truth is mars has a solid core and no magnetic field worth mentioning. There is little heat being generated in the planet unlike Earth and therefore virtually all the thermal impact comes from only one driver: Solar radiance. the thin atmosphere eliminates the green house effect meaning there is little to temper the solar variations. by logic, Mars is in fact a better indicator of Solar activity variation than Earth and that is a critical point. It is a simpler problem to study with less variables and close enough to the Earth to have real value. There is some indication in the report the authors are working toward that conclusion. However, the outright assault on their idea by the factions supporting man made global warming are clearly based on neutralizing the argument. Their objections are not based on data nor are they refuting the evidence. The logical approach should be to ask for clarification and specific results and a clear definition of the relationship between the effects on Mars and the Earth. Instead, it is a "shut up it doesn't matter" approach normally seen in politics,not science. It is pretty clear the problem is difficult to solve on Earth which is a far more complex system than Mars. Mars offers us a cleaner way to determine the true solar radiation impact on Earth. Rejecting the idea is foolish.
  25. Dutchwayne @49 - you are certainly correct that Mars is a far simpler climate system.  But given the very great differences between it and Earth, it is therefore a much poorer comparison to Earth's system.  So therefore what useful information can be gained in the comparison, which could not be better obtained elsewhere?

    For instance: solar activity is better measured directly by Earth satellite, rather than by observation of its effects on a planet which is (varyingly) 60 million to 400 million Km from Earth.

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