On January 22, Nature Astronomy reported findings of dust storms vast enough to cover the planet for months at a time. Using many years worth of imaging data taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, researchers are investigating the peculiar storms.
Previously, in 2006 and 2007, researchers found traces of water vapor at up to 80 kilometers high in the atmosphere during another enormous dust storm observance on the Red Planet. Coauthor Nicholas Heavens, an astronomer at Hampton University in Virginia, said that storms with rapid vertical movement, called rocket dust storms, carried the water vapor onto its convection currents, similar to storm clouds on Earth.
At a high enough altitude, the sun’s ultraviolet light breaks down the water’s chemical structure, separating hydrogen and oxygen molecules. The hydrogen is then allowed to free itself into space, leaving Mars without a vital molecule for water. Heavens estimates that so far roughly 10% of hydrogen has been lost in total through the effects of all dust storms on Mars. For a land that was once covered 100 meters deep with bodily water throughout, these dust storms can eventually deplete Mars of its source.
“Because it’s so light, hydrogen is lost relatively easily on Mars,” Heavens says. “Hydrogen loss is measurable from Earth, too, but we have so much water that it’s not a big deal.”
During an interview with JSR, Hwayoung Kim, a senior at Hoover High School, said, “I don’t know much about astronomy and climate change on other planets, but the situation at hand on Mars does intrigue me. Such anomalies prove that the world works in mysterious ways. The chemistry involved in this matter makes me believe that our planet will began to feel the effects.”
Although the current situation on Mars shows defining effects, scientists are still unsure about how the dust storms came to be. Going back billions of years ago, Mars previously warm and wet climate makes it harder to explain how dust storms would have worked.
Justin Jung Lee, Grade 12
Fairfax High School