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The present and past climates of planet Mars

DOI: 10.1140/epjconf/e2009-0924-9

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Mars is a small planet with a thin atmosphere of almost pure carbon dioxide. To first order, the Martian meteorology can be compared with what one would expect on a cold, dry desert-like Earth. However, several phenomena make the Martian climate system more complex than it appears. First, as much as 30% of the carbon dioxide atmosphere condenses every winter at high latitude to form CO2 ice polar caps, inducing large surface pressure variations all over the planet and an atmospheric circulation without equivalent on Earth. Second, a highly variable amount of suspended dust lifted by the winds modifies the radiative properties of the atmosphere, with sometime global dust storms able to totally shroud the planet. Last, a peculiar water cycle occurs on Mars, with water vapor transported by the atmosphere between the polar caps and possibly subsurface reservoirs, allowing the formation of clouds, hazes and frost. Telescopic and spacecraft observations have shown us that this complex climate system is highly variable, seasonally and from year to year, but these variations remain poorly understood. In fact, the Martian climate system has probably experienced large variations related to the oscillations in the parameters of the orbit and rotation of Mars (obliquity) a few millions or even thousand of years ago. These oscillations affected surface temperatures and the water cycle, inducing the mobilization and accumulation of large ice deposits in various locations on the planets. In a much distant past, it is also likely that Mars may have been a completely different planet. The observations of the geology (dry riverbeds and deltas, lacustrine sediments) and mineralogy (clay, sulfate) of the oldest surface on Mars dating back to more than 3 billions years ago provide evidence that liquid water was then abundant on the surface, at least episodically. Mars may have been warmed by a thicker atmosphere containing greenhouse gas and clouds, high geothermal fluxes, or episodically by large asteroid impacts.


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