Click for full image.
Click for full image.
Cool image time! The first photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken on September 19, 2021 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and shows what appears to be snow nestled in the hollows of many dunes.
The second photo, cropped to post here, shows in high resolution the area in the white box.
Is that snow water, or dry ice? The location is very far north, 76 degrees latitude, so it could be either. Since the photo was requested by Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, I emailed her to ask. Her answer:
Early in the spring all the bright stuff is dry ice. As it gets later in the spring it is probably still mostly dry ice but with HiRISE images alone we cannot really distinguish the composition of the ice. In-between the dunes it is almost certainly bare ground late in the spring, but since the dunes are dark the surface just looks bright in contrast
This picture was taken in summer, which suggests the snow is probably water, not dry ice. Yet, all the snow is found in the north-facing hollows, places that will remain mostly in shadow at this high latitude, 76 degrees north. Thus, it is possible that the snow is the last remaining traces of the thin dry ice mantle that covers the Martian poles down to about 60 degrees latitude during the winter, and sublimates away in summer.
Hansen had requested a whole bunch of similar images of such snowy dunes. As she explained,
The reason for this image set is that the ice (whatever kind it is) persists much later into the summer than at other locations. So we are curious about that… Certainly it stays in what we call “cold traps” longer – that would be the spots getting less sunshine so you are right about the north-facing slopes.
The black cross south of the north pole ice cap in the overview map to the right marks the location of these dunes. The location is inside the giant dune sea that encircles the northern ice cap. At this location, dunes cover about half the surface.
Why such a dune sea exists in the north but not in the Martian south pole is not presently understood. Nor is it clearly understood why the sea exists at all. Probably, a partial explanation lies in the fact that the north pole is in the northern lowland plains and the south pole is in the cratered highlands. The smoother northern plains might allow dust to accumulate more easily in the north, aligning with polar jet streams. In the south the craters and rougher terrains might block that accumulation.
This theory however is a guess, based on very superficial knowledge.
I must unfortunately ask you for your financial support because I do not depend on ads and rely entirely on the generosity of readers to keep Behind the Black running. You can either make a one time donation for whatever amount you wish, or you sign up for a monthly subscription ranging from $2 to $15 through Paypal or $3 to $50 through Patreon.
Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.
Your support is even more essential to me because I not only keep this site free from advertisements, I do not use the corrupt social media companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook to promote my work. I depend wholly on the direct support of my readers.
You can provide that support to Behind The Black with a contribution via Patreon or PayPal. To use Patreon, go to my website there and pick one of five monthly subscription amounts, or by making a one-time donation. For PayPal click one of the following buttons:
If Patreon or Paypal don't work for you, you can support Behind The Black directly by sending your donation by check, payable to Robert Zimmerman, to
Behind The Black
c/o Robert Zimmerman
Cortaro, AZ 85652
Or you can donate by using Zelle through your bank. You will need to give my name and email address (found at the bottom of the "About" page). The best part of this electronic option is that no fees will be deducted! What you donate will be what I receive.