Forecasting on Mars: Weather extremes from wild temperature swings to dust devils

Giant dust devils among other wild weather

Imagine waking up to your local Martian meteorologist saying the current temperature outside is -107 degrees Fahrenheit. Not to worry the high temperature will warm up to a balmy 10 degrees for the day. Pretty chilly, right?
Imagine waking up to your local Martian meteorologist saying the current temperature outside is -107 degrees Fahrenheit. Not to worry the high temperature will warm up to a balmy 10 degrees for the day. Pretty chilly, right?

Imagine waking up to your local Martian meteorologist saying the current temperature outside is -107 degrees Fahrenheit. Not to worry the high temperature will warm up to a balmy 10 degrees for the day. Pretty chilly, right?

That’s an example of some of the temperatures taken from NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover at Gale Crater in March. Far from the average forecast here on Earth.

The weather on Mars will play an important role soon as NASA attempts to fly Ingenuity, a four-pound helicopter, on the red planet, marking the first flight of its kind on another world.

The latest weather conditions as reported from the Curiosity Rover. (NASA)

Add to that, a very thin atmosphere and violent dust storms and that’s just a taste of what life is like on the red planet. Let’s take a closer look.

ATMOSPHERE

The atmosphere on Mars is very thin. In fact, roughly about 1/1000th that of Earth’s. It’s made primarily of carbon dioxide. Not exactly the best for breathing. The thin atmosphere plays an even bigger role. Planetary scientist Pascal Lee says “… your blood would boil, even at ambient temperature.” Basically, all the gases dissolve in your bloodstream resulting in death.

Without Earth’s atmosphere life would cease to exist on our beautiful marble in space. This is where life happens. Since the Martian atmosphere is made up of roughly 95% carbon dioxide, we would not be able to breathe let alone forecast the weather.

The atmosphere on Mars was believed to be thicker billions of years ago. Pictures from the desolate planet show large plains that suggest there were rivers or even oceans at one point. NASA’s Mars rovers have found what looked to be rocks that had been soaked in water at one point. Now, all that’s left behind is toxic dust that covers the ground.

CLOUDS

These clouds from Sol 15 have a new look. As water ice clouds cover the sky, the sky takes on a more bluish cast. This is because small particles (perhaps a tenth the size of the Martian dust, or one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair) are bright in blue light, but almost invisible in red light. Thus, scientists expect that the ice particles in the clouds are very small. The clouds were imaged by the Imager for Mars Pathfinder (IMP). (NASA)

There is some evidence that some water vapor exists in the thin Martian atmosphere. It comes in the form of clouds. In the upper layers of the thin Martian atmosphere, especially around high peaks, thin wispy clouds have photographed and even seen around mountain peaks. When the clouds form temperatures drop considerably. Frost has even been recorded forming on the ground at the NASA Viking II lander site.

DUST STORMS & MARTIAN DEVILS

A Martian dust devil spins across Gusev Crater just before noon on March 15, 2005. Photo credit: Mars rover Spirit. (NASA)

Violent dust storms are another weather phenomena on Mars. Not just any dust blows around during windstorms, it’s toxic. Made of mainly perchlorate even the smallest amount is toxic to humans. These aren’t your average dust storm either. They happen frequently and on a global scale for months at time and leave the thin atmosphere hazy for months on end.

As the ground heats up dust Martian dust devils are formed and they are giant. These devils are roughly 10 times larger than we see here on Earth and whip around near 70 mph leaving tracks in the thin coating of dust. Inside these the fast-moving vertical columns of air could also be little flickers and cracks of lightning. The main hazards to humans would be the amount of tiny dust particles getting into everything. Some of the largest ones can reach up to 5 miles high and happen frequently during the so-called spring and summer month on Mars.

EXTREME TEMPERATURES AND SEASONS

This information breaks down the data gathered on the weather and climate on Mars from the Insight Mission. It even shows seasons. (NASA)

Although Mars has a very thin atmosphere, it’s still capable of seasons due to the tilt on the axis. The 25 degree tilt allows for the progression of water ice and carbon dioxide to grow during the winter months at the poles and to shrink during warmer months. The warmest in the lower latitudes in the summer has been recorded near 70 degrees. Not too bad, right? Well, the temperature dips as low as -220 F in the wintertime at the poles. The average daytime temperature is far from balmy at -81 degrees F. It would take quite the thermal coat for humans to even be comfortable on an average day on the desert-like planet.

Ahead of Ingenuity’s flight, the chopper’s chief engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory says the team will be looking at several weather-related risk factors.

“We look to weather for two main reasons: One is we want to get some sense of how much energy we’re going to use keeping things warm,” Bob Balaram said, of the little robots solar panels. “Is it a breezy day on Mars is it breezy night on Mars? So that allows us to forecast, you know, what thermostat settings we need, and how much power we’re going to use to keep ourselves warm.”

Ingenuity chief pilot Håvard Grip, also with NASA JPL, said they will also be looking at the air or atmospheric density ahead of the first flight on the red planet.

“Fortunately on Mars, things tend to be very repeatable from one day to the next and so we get these (air) density curves that show us how the density varies throughout a sol, and that allows us to project into the future what it’s going to look like when the time to fly comes,” Grip said.

Air density must be within a certain range where flight is possible for the helicopter about the size of a large drone.

“Then we also adjust the rotor speed of the helicopter according to what the predicted density is at the time of flight to be optimal for that,” Grip said.

Mars Ingenuity helicopter deploy from Perseverance rover

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About the Author:

Emmy Award Winning Meteorologist Samara Cokinos joined the News 6 team in September 2017. In her free time, she loves running and being outside.