Images Show Mars Has Extreme Global Warming

ByABC News
December 6, 2001, 3:00 PM

Dec. 7 -- It might seem like the weather's getting warmer here on Earth, but Mars appears to have an even bigger global warming problem.

High-resolution images snapped by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor show that levels of frozen water and carbon dioxide at the Red Planet's poles have dwindled dramatically by more than 10 feet over a single Martian year (equivalent to 687 days or about two Earth years).

Touring Mars in a Parka?

Michael Caplinger of San Diego's Malin Space Science Systems points out that if the warming were to continue at the same rate (that's a big "if"), Mars could become a nearly inhabitable place for people within 5,000 years or so.

"Rather than wearing a spacesuit, you could get away with wearing just an oxygen mask and a thick parka," said Caplinger, who co-authored a study about the observations in this week's issue of Science. "It would be like standing on top of Everest."

The change in climate could also support the presence of more liquid water on Mars.

The evidence came by monitoring icy pits, ridges and mounds at Mars' south pole at the start and end of a Martian year. By comparing images in 1998 and 2001, the team noticed a dramatic widening of pits in the frozen mass and a shrinking of the mounds and ridges. The images were captured and relayed by NASA's robotic orbiter, the Surveyer, which was launched in 1996 and began orbiting Mars in 1997.

"We weren't expecting to see something nearly this large," said Caplinger.

Driving Warm and Wet Cycles

Caplinger and lead author Michael Malin, also of Malin Space Science Systems, suggest that the dwindling layers of frozen carbon dioxide could be sublimating (changing from solid to gas the same way ice cubes shrink over time in a freezer) and contributing carbon dioxide gas to the Martian atmosphere.

More carbon dioxide gas in the air would create a denser atmosphere. And a denser atmosphere insulates the planet and leads to warmer temperatures and higher evaporation points for carbon dioxide and water.