03/20/2002 08:00:00

Researchers find new clue why Martian wateris found on the north pole, not the south

When astronauts finally land on Mars, a safe bet is that they'll head for northern climes if they intend to spend much time there. That's because nearly all the available water is frozen as ice at the north pole. Planetary scientists have been aware of this for some time, but they now have a new clue why it is so.

In the March 21 issue of the journal Nature, California Institute of Technology researcher Mark Richardson and his colleague John Wilson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reveal that the higher average elevation of the Red Planet's southern hemisphere ultimately tends to drive water northward.

Their evidence is based on a computer model the two have worked on for years (Wilson since 1992, Richardson since 1996), coupled with data returned by NASA's Mars Global Surveyor.

"We've found a mechanism in the Martian climate that introduces annual average hemispheric asymmetry," explains Richardson, an assistant professor of planetary science at Caltech. "The circulation systems of Mars and Earth are similar in certain ways, but Mars is different in that water is not available everywhere."

The key to understanding the phenomenon is a complicated computer modeling of the Hadley circulation, which extends about 40 degrees of latitude each side of the Martian equator. A topographical bias in circulation pretty much means there will be a bias in the net pole-to-pole transport of water, Richardson explains.

A plausible explanation is that water ice is found at the north pole and carbon dioxide ice is found at the south for reasons having to do with the way the sun heats the atmosphere. As the Martian orbit changes on time scales of 50,000 years and more, these effects tend to cancel, with no pole claiming the water ice cap over geological time. It has been suggested that topography determines where carbon dioxide forms, and hence, where water ice can form, but the processes controlling carbon dioxide ice caps are poorly understood.

However, the mechanism Richardson and Wilson describe is independent of this occasional realignment of the pole's precession and the planet's eccentric orbit. The mechanism means that, while there is never a time in the past when water ice can be discounted at the south pole, one is more likely to find it more frequently at the north pole.

The importance of the study is its furthering of our understanding of the Martian climate and Martian water cycle. A better understanding of how water is transported will be particularly important to determining whether life once existed on Mars, and what happened to it if it ever did.

The Web address for the journal Nature is http://www.nature.com.

Contact: Robert Tindol (626) 395-3631