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Recent ice ages on Mars


A key pacemaker of ice ages on the Earth is climatic forcing due to variations in planetary orbital parameters. Recent Mars exploration has revealed dusty, water-ice-rich mantling deposits that are layered, metres thick and latitude dependent, occurring in both hemispheres from mid-latitudes to the poles. Here we show evidence that these deposits formed during a geologically recent ice age that occurred from about 2.1 to 0.4 Myr ago. The deposits were emplaced symmetrically down to latitudes of 30°—equivalent to Saudi Arabia and the southern United States on the Earth—in response to the changing stability of water ice and dust during variations in obliquity (the angle between Mars' pole of rotation and the ecliptic plane) reaching 30–35°. Mars is at present in an ‘interglacial’ period, and the ice-rich deposits are undergoing reworking, degradation and retreat in response to the current instability of near-surface ice. Unlike the Earth, martian ice ages are characterized by warmer polar climates and enhanced equatorward transport of atmospheric water and dust to produce widespread smooth deposits down to mid-latitudes.

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Figure 1: Maps showing important latitudinal trends on Mars (simple cylindrical projection).
Figure 2: Characteristic tens of metre-scale textures of the mantle and dissected terrain as seen in MOC high-resolution images15,16.
Figure 3: Latitudinal dependence of statistical characteristics of subkilometre-scale surface topography (roughness and concavity) and percentage of images with dissected terrain.
Figure 4: Orbital forcing of climate in the past.


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We acknowledge the many discussions that we had with individuals during the 37th Brown-Vernadsky Microsymposium, held at the Lunar and Planetary Institute on 15–16 March 2003. We also thank J. Dixon, A. Côté and P. Neivert for assistance with manuscript preparation. This work was supported by NASA (J.W.H., J.F.M. and M.A.K.) and the NSF, Polar Programs (D.R.M.).

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Correspondence to James W. Head.

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Head, J., Mustard, J., Kreslavsky, M. et al. Recent ice ages on Mars. Nature 426, 797–802 (2003).

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