How Did Water Flow On The Frozen Surface Of Mars?

Other than Earth, our home and only planet in the solar system capable of supporting life, Mars is the next most exciting planet on our radar. In the grand scheme of things, Mars is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from us here on Earth. Elon Musk wants to send people to Mars in the not-so-distant future. NASA has sent rovers to explore the surface of Mars. We take enough interest in Mars that, if it were a person, it would likely file a restraining order.

Surface of Mars
Aynur_zakirov / Pixabay

Luckily, Mars is not a person and we can continue to send rovers and study its surface. With all of the research done on Mars, it’s pretty much undisputed that liquid water once flowed on the surface of Mars. Valleys and lake beds have been carved by water over the years, much like the valleys and lake beds we see here on Earth. The one question that threw a wrench into the liquid water assumption was the fact that Mars, currently and historically, has an average temperature below the freezing point for water. It’s pretty hard for frozen water to flow across the landscape and carve into the soil.

Now, researchers appear to have an explanation for how liquid water was able to form on the incredibly cold surface of Mars. Icarus, an online science journal, published a study from researchers that addresses one of the biggest questions regarding Mars. They don’t dispute the cold temperatures on Mars and the historical data that has been gathered. Rather, they claim that seasonal high temperatures were able to get high enough to melt the outer edges of glaciers on Mars and form liquid water. Over time, this process would be enough to form the valleys and lakes seen on the surface of Mars.

As a Canadian, this makes total sense to me. From November to March, it’s pretty damn cold here. Almost every day is below freezing. Snow and ice is a natural part of the landscape during those months. However… Every once in awhile you get a few days in a row where the sun peeks out, the temperature rises, and we get a few degrees above freezing. The snow melts, water flows into the storm drains, and some people put on shorts because they’re insane. Think of summer on Mars like winter in Canada. Most of the time it’s cold and water is frozen. However, there are seasonally warm days that allow ice to melt into liquid water. Over millions of years, this process would be enough to create the landscape on Mars that we see now.

Of course, Mars is much different now than it was millions and billions of years ago. The atmosphere has changed and the surface is mainly red dirt and dust. These models give us a look into the past and may explain how the surface of Mars once looked. It also backs up the thinking that Mars was once covered in ice and water. As researchers put together all of these pieces they can gain a better understanding of our neighbor in the solar system and hopefully help Elon Musk and other big thinkers work toward an exciting mission to Mars.

Will this research mean you’re farming potatoes on Mars next week? No. However, this is one small baby step toward the ultimate goal which is hopefully more exciting than farming potatoes on Mars.