Radar data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) indicates the Martian planet recently came out of an ice age—about 400,000 years ago, in fact, corroborating previous models that suggested Mars experienced a recent bout of the chills.
The new findings were published in the May 27 issue of the journal Science, providing scientists with insight as to how the Red Planet’s frigid climate has changed over the years. Scientists already know the planet had polar ice caps, but the latest data provides strong evidence for accelerated accumulation of ice at the planet’s north pole.
Scientists say Mars’ tilt, which undergoes dramatic variations over hundreds of thousands of years, causes substantial shifts in the planet’s climate. Thus, why scientists believe there was a recent ice age. Confirming their suspicions was data procured by the MRO’s Shallow Subsurface Radar (SHARAD), which produced internal images of the planet’s polar ice caps.
What scientists found in the north was particularly interesting.
“The layers in the upper few hundred meters display features that indicate a period of erosion, followed by a period of rapid accumulation that is still occurring today,” explained Isaac Smith, planetary scientist.
What’s weird is how Mars’ ice age differs from what occurs here on Earth. Rather than cooling down and accumulating ice, scientists believe the opposite happens. When the planet’s tilt increases, its poles become warmer than lower latitudes, causing ground ice and glaciers to form at mid-latitudes. Once this period ends, polar ice begins accumulating again.
The good news is that there is apparently a lot of frozen CO2 at the Martian planet’s north pole right now, which, if released, could potentially make Mars’ atmosphere thicker and warmer. It wouldn’t be enough for humans to live, but if ever there was hope to terraform the planet, now’s the opportune time.