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The layers of Mars’ north pole icecap

The layers of Mars' north pole icecap
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken on April 1, 2021 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows the high cliff edge of the Martian north polar ice cap, and was taken as part of the springtime monitoring for the numerous avalanches that fall from the icecap’s steep edge every spring.

This particular cliff is probably about 1,000 feet high. I cannot tell if the image captured any avalanches on the very steep north-facing cliff. What struck me about this image however was the terraced layers so visible on the west-facing scarp. You can clearly count about eleven distinct and thick layers, each forming a wide ledge.

Each layer represents a different climate epoch on Mars when the ice cap was growing, with new snow being deposited.

The Martian obliquity over the past 80 million years

The graph to the right, taken from this paper [pdf], shows how the rotational tilt of Mars, its obliquity, is believed to have shifted over the past 80 million years, that tilt shifting from as low as 11 degrees to as much as 47 degrees.

Scientists believe that when the tilt is low, the poles are the coldest places on Mars. At that time, these layers would be growing as the ice in the planet’s mid-latitudes sublimates into the atmosphere to fall as snow on the polar icecaps.

When the planet’s tilt was as high as 47 degrees, the mid-latitudes become the coldest region on Mars, and the ice on these polar layers begins to sublimate away to fall as snow in the mid-latitudes. The ice however did not all disappear, probably because dust had been deposited on top to protect it. When the obliquity shifted again and snow began falling at the pole, a new layer began to form on top of the dirty top of the previous layer, creating the layers we see today.

This image shows about eleven thick layers, each probably representing an epoch of at least several hundred thousand years. The retreat seen for each new layer probably tells us something about the overall loss of water in Mars’ atmosphere.

Other places along the icecap’s edge typically show many more layers, illustrating that the number of climate cycles on Mars have been very numerous over the eons. In order to get a clear picture of the geological history of all of Mars we will need to document these cycles precisely, a documentation that will not be possible until we can drill a number of core samples into this icecap so that we can date each layer.

Once we can do that, much of the geology we see here as well as in the mid-latitudes will suddenly become decipherable. The guesswork that planetary geologists are now making about what they see across all of the icy surface of Mars above 30 degrees latitude will change to solid knowledge and some clarity.


Conscious Choice cover

Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!


From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.


“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.


All editions are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all book vendors, with the ebook priced at $5.99 before discount. The ebook can also be purchased direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit, in which case you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


Autographed printed copies are also available at discount directly from me (hardback $24.95; paperback $14.95; Shipping cost for either: $5.00). Just email me at zimmerman @ nasw dot org.


  • Jeff Wright

    Almost like steps…

  • Brad

    Fabulous image!

    I always like seeing new information about the ice caps of Mars.

    Has there ever been, or is there any present proposal, for mars landers to probe those regions?

  • Brad: In a word, no. We had a lander many years ago that tried to land near the poles, Mars Polar Lander, but the mission failed.

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