Mars Might Have Freaky Snowstorms at Night

By Rae Paoletta on at

Elon Musk’s home planet, which humans know as Mars, is abound with surprises. It has a moon crumbling under the weight of its own stress, might be suitable for growing potatoes, and harbors remains from a giant ancient ocean. Apparently, that’s just the beginning of Mars’ unreasonably wonderful weirdness.

A new study published today in Nature Geoscience suggests the Red Planet might experience small yet intense snowstorms at night. While we’ve actually known about Martian flurries for some time, this research suggests the nighttime snow storms are actually localized, and with rapidly moving snow.

It’s difficult to envision Mars—which looks like a desert or a litter box—as a place where snow could fall. According to the researchers’ models, water-ice clouds can still form in Mars’ atmosphere, which is roughly 100 times thinner than Earth’s and contains significantly less water vapour. At night, these water-ice cloud particles cool down, causing instability which could lead to these intense, localised snowstorms.

Image: James Tuttle Keane/Nature Geoscience

While NASA’s Phoenix lander first spotted falling snow on Mars back in 2008, this new information could illuminate how quickly the precipitation moves and where it comes from.

“We show that such snowstorms—or ice microbursts—can explain deep night-time mixing layers detected from orbit and precipitation signatures detected below water-ice clouds by [NASA’s] Phoenix lander,” the researchers wrote. “In our simulations, convective snowstorms occur only during the Martian night, and result from atmospheric instability due to radiative cooling of water-ice cloud particles.”

So while you might not be able to build a snowman on the Red Planet, you can take comfort in the fact that if Elon Musk has his way, you might get to be pulverized by rapidly moving Martian snowflakes—someday. [Nature Geoscience]

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