October 14, 2014

On the origin of perennial water ice at the south pole of Mars: A precession-controlled mechanism?

Montmessin F., Haberle R.M., Forget F., Langevin Y., Clancy R.T., Bibring J.-P.
Journal of Geophysical Research E: Planets

Summary: The poles of Mars are known to have recorded recent (<107 years) climatic changes. While the south polar region appears to have preserved its million-year-old environment from major resurfacing events, except for the small portion containing the CO2 residual cap, the discovery of residual water ice units in areas adjacent to the cap provides compelling evidence for recent glaciological activity. The mapping and characterization of these H2O-rich terrains by Observatoire pour la Minéralogie, l'Eau, les Glaces et l'Activité (OMEGA) on board Mars Express, which have supplemented earlier findings by Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor, have raised a number of questions related to their origin. We propose that these water ice deposits are the relics of Mars' orbit precession cycle and that they were laid down when perihelion was synchronized with northern summer, i.e., more than 10,000 years ago. We favor precession over other possible explanations because (1) as shown by our General Circulation Model (GCM) and previous studies, current climate is not conducive to the accumulation of water at the south pole due to an unfavorable volatile transport and insolation configuration, (2) the residual CO2 ice cap, which is known to cold trap water molecules on its surface and which probably controls the current extent of the water ice units, is geologically younger, (3) our GCM shows that 21,500 years ago, when perihelion occurred during northern spring, water ice at the north pole was no longer stable and accumulated instead near the south pole with rates as high as 1 mm yr-1. This could have led to the formation of a meters-thick circumpolar water ice mantle. As perihelion slowly shifted back to the current value, southern summer insolation intensified and the water, ice layer became unstable. The layer recessed poleward until the residual CO2 ice cover eventually formed on top of it and protected water ice from further sublimation. In this polar accumulation process, water ice clouds play a critical role since they regulate the exchange of water between hemispheres. The so-called "Clancy effect", which sequesters water in the spring/summer hemisphere coinciding with aphelion due to cloud sedimentation, is demonstrated to be comparable in magnitude to the circulation bias forced by the north-to-south topographic dichotomy. However, we predict that the response of Mars' water cycle to the precession cycle should be asymmetric between hemispheres not only because of the topographic bias in circulation but also because of an asymmetry in the dust cycle. We predict that under a "reversed perihelion" climate, dust activity during northern summer is less pronounced than during southern summer in the opposite perihelion configuration (i.e., today's regime). When averaged over a precession cycle, this reduced potential for dust lifting will force a significantly colder summer in the north and, by virtue of the Clancy effect, will curtail the ability of the northern hemisphere to transfer volatiles to the south. This process may have helped create the observed morphological differences in the layered deposits between the poles and could help explain the large disparity in their resurfacing ages. © 2007 by the American Geopysical Union.