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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.


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.

Further viewing


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Comments 1 to 25 out of 59:

  1. Sediment cycles on Mars in resonance with Earth
    After computation of the astronomical Milankovitch cycles on deep sea cores for the last 2.4 Ma the same cycles revealed to exist in land sediment series: Long Term (last 2.4 Ma, Pleistocene) and Middle Term (last 127Ka, Last Interglacial - Last Glacial Time-span) Time Series after cycle computation with the newly developed ExSpect method. Moreover, the same calculation method proved useful for Short Term Time Series as well on sediments of the last 10.000 years (10Ka). The latter cycles as those obtained for ice and glacial lake deposits on Mars could also clearly be traced back in the planetary correlations computed by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. This points to an extra terrestrial astronomical forcing of the origin of all these cycles on both planets Earth and Mars.
    Which begs the next question - how would they know this without taking a sediment sample on Mars? Answer: they got one with the the Mars orbital satellite.
  2. Nice picture of the southern icecap by the way.
    Response: Thanks, it was either a photo of the icecaps or a picture of Fred Thompson. I think I made the right choice.
  3. Once again, it is useful to ask ourselves this question about other planets: how unusual is this (the recent southern ice caps sublimation)? This link gives a hint: Consider also that Mars' orbit takes about 589 days, letting us observe only three full seasonal cycles in 5 years. It has long been known that Milankovitch cycles are the best fit to the available evidence for historic glaciation-deglaciation cycles on Earth. The energy source, the Sun, is extra-terrestrial but there is no evidence that it got brighter or dimmer in proportions apt at changing our climate and in any case, that is not what Milankovitch cycles are. As far as I can recall, the energy received changes because of the planet getting closer, farther, or being oriented slightly different, which is a function of its orbit and precession; in that sense, extra-terrestrial is a little misleading, since these qualities could really be called intrinsic to the planet. The point of the paper cited by papertiger is that Earth and Mars' Milankovitch Cycles could be resonant. I wonder if anyone has tried to obtain some level of confirmation from pure celestial mechanics calculation. In any case, it is interesting but quite irrelevant to the current terrestrial warming, which does not correlate well with neither Milankovitch nor with the so-called Martian warming. That Martian warming is really a re-warming back to the kind of weather seen by the Viking crafts, and the Earth should now be heading for cooler climate if only Milankovitch was at play.
  4. This seems to be the best work so far on Mars' recent weather: Global warming and climate forcing by recent albedo changes on Mars
    Response: Thanks, this was the study I was refering to but I didn't have a direct link to the study. I've updated the page with the link added.
  5. Sunspot numbers are extremely crude indicator of solar activity and do not encompass many other manifestations of it (sorry adding the F10.7cm Radio Flux Index also won't do the trick). So repeating the argument that sunspot numbers have leveled out since 1950 doesn't necesseraly mean what you want it to mean (no additional inputs from the Sun in the Earth's or any other planet's climate). Also, focusing only on the total solar irradiance (TSI) as the only possible way in which solar activity influences Earth type planets' climates is just selective presenting/lack of knowledge (I hope it is the second, since the first would imply very bad things about your presentation of facts). In fact, there some quite viable hypothesis that explain how non-TSI manifestations of solar activity cause dust storms on Mars (by the way those are possible for the Earth as well). Obviously there is still to little data to confirm or reject them. By don't "get rid of" Mars just yet. Mars is actually quite good "test case" for the anthropogenic vs. natural warming debate. As a planet it is quite similar to the Earth in many important aspects and it is as close as ti the Earth as it gets in the solar system. Some of the main advantages for a possible "Mars test case" are: 1. There is no human activity there to influence the Marsian climate in any way, so we can discount that factor 2. there is no ocean to provide huge termal inertia, so solar effects will be much more immediate, 3. Marsian day is almost identical to Earth's day, 4. Marsian atmosphere is similar Earth's mid upper atmosphere, so this simplifies estimation of the solar effects quite a bit. The geometrical effects that you mention (orbit's eccentricity, axis tilt) are quite easy to correct for, much easier that cloud structure in the current climates for example.
  6. StanislavLem: An interesting post, but even better for me is that it lets me play skeptic for a change ;-) . You do not specify what viable hypothesis explain how non-TSI manifestations of solar activity cause dust storms on Mars, so I can not address that, but I do not agree with your idea that the Martian atmosphere is a good test bed to allow observation of the effect of human activity. Off the top of my head, here are 4 major differences and, in my opinion, each one is enough to invalidate such a comparison without a large amount of research (i.e. several continuous martian weather stations). 1) No magnetosphere so there is a direct ionization of atmospheric particles. 2) I would disagree with your comparison about pressure. If you are looking at total atmospheric pressure, then Mars is more like the stratosphere. If you are talking about partial pressure of CO2, then the surface of Earth is the best we can get, but that is even too low. In any case, both of these do not produce some of the more important effects such as pressure broadening of the CO2 absorption spectrum. 3) There is no water to speak of and thus the vertical thermal transport associated with water does not exist. 4) Finally, the drivers also seem to be much different. Dust storms are a key part of the Martian climate as are sublimation winds from the poles. These have no equivalent on earth. Regards, John
  7. You wrote: "Mars has one of the highest orbital eccentricities of any planet in our solar system which causes much greater seasonal changes than on Earth." OK, but has the orbit of Mars changed in the last 30 years or the last 100 years to explain the extra warming? If the answer is 'yes' can you explain why and how? If the answer is 'no' then doesn't that point to an extra-planetary explanation? It seems in your article you begin by ruling out the sun, then suggest you're going to offer alternate explanations, then fail to do so. Yes the storms can cause the warming, but what is causing the extra turbulence in the atmosphere leading to the storms?
    Response: The orbit wouldn't have changed over a 30 year or 100 year period - orbital changes occur over much longer periods. By orbital eccentricity, I mean Mars' orbit is more elliptical than Earth's which is more circular. This means Mars's distance from the sun changes more dramatically through a Martian year which means its seasonal changes are more dramatic than Earth's. I thought the alternate explanation was clearly explained - dust storms reducing the planet's albedo.
  8. Thanks for the response, but it appears you only want to take the argument up to a fixed point. What's caused the *increase* in dust storms that is leading to higher temperatures? Obviously not the more elliptical orbit of Mars alone as this hasn't changed. Which only leaves an extra-planetary explanation, doesn't it? Your explanation only makes sense if the temperature of Mars was not showing a trend increase. Storm activity would therefore be relatively consistent over time and the temperature on Mars would be relatively consistent over time. But it isn't. If this is wrong (which is quite possible of course), you need to explain how these storm cycles can last decades and lead to decades of warming, and then presumably afterwards, decades of cooling, only by means of interactions within the Martian atmosphere itself.
  9. If Jupiter, the earth, Mars, Pluto and so forth are warming... then its the sun. These alternative feeble excuses are really clutching at straws.
  10. I haven't seen anything on Jupiter system as a whole that would convince me it is warming to any significant extent, and Pluto is likely caused by orbital eccentricity it has been closer than average to the sun in recent years
  11. Mars cooled down signficantly between the Viking landings and the recent "warming" trend, while Earth was consistently warming throughout that time, making the correlation highly doubtful. Pluto has not been observed through a complete orbit yet, arguing about its "climate" is pointless. The observations match expectations from its seasonal cycle and the albedo changes seen since the 50s (likely due to collection of space materials). Furthermore, if the Sun could really throw out the energy to affect Pluto so much, we would be frying. There is no convincing evidence that Jupiter's "climate" (once again more a figure of speech than a observed reality) is prone to be affected by variations in TSI so minute that we had to have satellites around Earth to actually mesure them. Among the inner planets, Venus, most likely to show changes due to its proximity to the Sun and huge greenhouse effect is not showing any warming.
  12. It's not just Mars. Ever read the papers by the late Dr. Rhodes Fairbridge?
  13. Re-reading through this, I thought it would be worth pointing to a detail mentioned by Stanislav Lev. Mars is not really the closes planet to Earth. Although Mars happens to be very close at times, in average, Venus is closer.
  14. If anyone visits again, could any comment be made on possible chemical reactions resultant from storm activity on the surface. Excuse ignorance, ignore if stupid. Thanks
  15. I'm not going to address the data directly just now, because there's another problem with the "other planets are warming" argument. Here it is. We have a handful of probes on Mars and an orbiter. Mars is the planet we probably know the most about besides Earth. And even with that equipment we can only get the faintest idea of what's going on with the temps there on Mars. Or other planets for that matter. We have laughably few samples of temps on other planets as compared to the astounding array of data on our own Earthly climate trends. It's absurd to claim with any confidence that we know for certain that other planets or moons are warming or cooling, when we have relatively little data about them -- all the while ignoring our vast armada of land and sea-based temperature probes right here on Earth (not to mention orbiting satellites). Should we dismiss the data we have on our own planet's temperature trends because of a smattering of temperature measurements on any other planet? Which data-set do you think would be more reliable? The one we have here at home, of course. Because we have many, many more sources and samples, and over a longer period of time. We know far more about the temperature trends on our own planet than on any other planet, and yet certain people use highly questionable speculations about other planets' temperatures to try to dismiss the dta trends we see here at home. To use this data (or records from other planets) as reliable evidence of anything more solid than the temperature sampling we have for Earth, is on its face absurd. I would also like to say that there's too much attention paid to Earthly CO2 alone. Methane and Nitrous Oxides may be at least as problematic. Most of this comes from livestock production. Certainly, getting them under control first will give us more return on investment, and quicker too.
  16. Someone must have the answer to why dust from volcanos and pollution cause cooling on earth and warming on Mars.
  17. ReBar writes: Someone must have the answer to why dust from volcanos and pollution cause cooling on earth and warming on Mars. Read the article again. Lots of dust (in 1977) made Mars slightly cooler, and less dust (in 1999) made the planet slightly warmer. On both Earth and Mars, more dust = cooler. I hope this helps.
  18. Actually Sagan, temp measures on other planets could be considered more reliable than some I've seen taken on earth. You are showing an obvious bias. If we are concerned with finding the truth why not look at other planets.
  19. Actually Sagan, temp measures on other planets could be considered more reliable than some I've seen taken on earth. On Earth we have buoys, drifters, and satellites measuring the temperature of the oceans; met stations and satellites measuring the temperature of the land surface; boreholes measuring temperatures beneath the surface; and satellites and balloons measuring temperatures in the atmosphere. That's orders of magnitude more information than we have about temperatures on any other planet.
  20. I notice that the link to the ice core on Mars from comment 1 is defunct, so here's another. Same picture, a bit more stylishly presented. It shocks me that after close to three years, numerous rewrites, you still haven't come close to refuting my original comment.
  21. This comment is a response to a comment by Noel Edwards on a different, less appropriate, thread. Noel wrote
    Moderator I have read most of your references. They indicate that CO2 is capable of absorbing radiation at different frequencies. Already known. But there is nothing in those references that indicate why Mars is cooler than it should be when it has lots more CO2 than Earth. There are no other issues associated with Mars, other than it has some 14 times as much CO2 in its atmosphere than has planet earth. Its maximum temperature is the approximately the same as Earth's average temperature and its average temperature is the approximately the same as Earth's minimum temperature. The physics is similar.
    Noel, you are very, very incorrect, as dsleaton and Matthew pointed out to you. There is no basis for your claim that Mars "is several degrees C cooler than it otherwise should be." More details on why the water vapor feedback is so much smaller on Mars than on Earth are in David Archer's book "Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast", pages 71-72. If you don't want to buy the book or borrow it from your library, you can watch his class lectures for free. If you insist on details, here is just one of several examples of calculations that Mars should in fact be the temperature it is: Forget, et al. (1999). A general-reader-comprehensible overview of modeling the Martian atmosphere purportedly is provided by Stephen R. Lewis's article "Modelling the Martian Atmosphere, though all but the first page is behind a paywall. If you really, really, want to understand the difference between Mars and Earth, get ahold of this book when it comes out (probably December 2010); it will have a workbook and computer models you can run: "Principles of Planetary Climate" by Ray Pierrehumbert.
  22. Something that just came out, and may have an impact: Large dry ice deposits in Mars's South pole, that look as if they are currently in a dispersal phase - sublimating into the atmosphere as CO2.
    Response: [Dikran Marsupial] Activated link
  23. Do I understand correctly that Fenton 2007 was not based on actual measurements of temperatures on Mars, but rather an inference that temperatures must be going up because the albedo was lower? In my crude understanding (I have a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, but I work as an attorney and am by no means up on scientific trends in general, much less trends in climate science), the inference is that a lower *proportion* of light energy from the sun was being reflected, meaning a greater *proportion* of light energy from the sun was being absorbed, and therefore temperatures must be rising as a result? If I am getting this right, then to rely on Fenton 2007 as evidence that Mars warmed between 1977 and 1999, wouldn't you have to accept in the first instance that albedo is a reliable measure of Mars temperature, and doesn't that theory imply that the TSI is fairly constant (for the moment passing over StanislavLem's comment about other solar phenomena besides TSI impacting Martian climate)? Otherwise couldn't the perceived decrease in brightness on Mars actually be due to a decrease in TSI rather than a lower proportion of TSI that is reflected? If that were the case, that would undermine the argument that the Earth is heating up *because* of solar changes, as the Earth would be heating up *despite* a decrease in TSI. Of course, if we are actually measuring TSI directly, then the foregoing line of reasoning is irrelevant, and please forgive my ignorance. Turning to StanislavLem's comment about other solar phenomena causing dust storms on Mars, reasoning that those are "possible" on Earth as well, is anybody putting forth a cogent theory that dust storms on Earth actually are happening, that they follow the patterns of dust storms on Mars, and that they impact Earth's climate in a significant way? Is there a general consensus that the only actual significant heat energy from the sun is from TSI, even if other solar phenomena might have other impacts (gravitational/magnetic?) that could indirectly affect climate?
    Response: TSI is indeed measured by directly, by spacecraft.
  24. What I am trying to drive at with my last question is that if in fact TSI is relatively constant over the past several decades (which I assume scientists agree that it is, otherwise how could you make inferences about temperature change between 1977 and 1999 based on changes in brightness of a planet?) and is the accepted measure of heat energy emanating from the sun, it would seem that the burden of proof is on the proponents of Mars as a model for Earth to show more than just a laundry list of similarities between Earth and Mars, but rather a complete theory on how "other" solar effects are altering both Earth and Mars in the same ways. In saying that, I am not ruling out that an empirical close correlation in climate trends between Mars and Earth could persuade me that there is something to the solar effects theories, but my impression from the comment thread is that there has been no clear showing that the trends on Mars and Earth have been parallel.
    Response: You are correct. There are no clear parallels of trends in global temperature between Earth and other planets. In some limited time periods (pretty much random snapshots) we have some idea of some few other planets' temperatures. Comparing across those too-few snapshots reveals some of those few planets might be warmer and others might be colder. So skeptics who claim "other planets are warming just like Earth" are plain wrong.
  25. Moderator, thanks for the nearly instantaneous response to my post #23!
    Response: You're welcome, but I forgot to point you to the Skeptical Science post "It’s the sun" for more info about TSI.

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