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Recent ice-rich deposits formed at high latitudes on Mars by sublimation of unstable equatorial ice during low obliquity


Observations from the gamma-ray spectrometer instrument suite on the Mars Odyssey spacecraft have been interpreted as indicating the presence of vast reservoirs of near-surface ice in high latitudes of both martian hemispheres1,2,3,4,5. Ice concentrations are estimated to range from 70 per cent at 60° latitude to 100 per cent near the poles, possibly overlain by a few centimetres of ice-free material in most places4. This result is supported by morphological evidence of metres-thick layered deposits that are rich in water-ice6,7,8,9 and periglacial-like features10,11 found only at high latitudes. Diffusive exchange of water between the pore space of the regolith and the atmosphere has been proposed to explain this distribution12, but such a degree of concentration is difficult to accommodate with such processes9,13,14. Alternatively, there are suggestions that ice-rich deposits form by transport of ice from polar reservoirs and direct redeposition in high latitudes during periods of higher obliquity9,13, but these results have been difficult to reproduce with other models. Here we propose instead that, during periods of low obliquity (less than 25°), high-latitude ice deposits form in both hemispheres by direct deposition of ice, as a result of sublimation from an equatorial ice reservoir that formed earlier, during a prolonged high-obliquity excursion. Using the ice accumulation rates estimated from global climate model simulations we show that, over the past ten million years, large variations of Mars' obliquity have allowed the formation of such metres-thick, sedimentary layered deposits in high latitude and polar regions.

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Figure 1: Evolution of the martian obliquity in the past 10 Myr.
Figure 2: Surface water ice budget (in millimetres per martian year) for a 40° obliquity during simulation year 11, with superimposed MOLA topography.
Figure 3: Surface water ice budget in mm per martian year after ten years of simulation for various obliquities, and with an example of equatorial ice reservoir situated around Arsia and Pavonis Montes.


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We acknowledge R. M. Haberle and G. L. Tyler for useful discussions and comments. This work was supported by the CNRS-PNP programme.

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Correspondence to Benjamin Levrard.

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Levrard, B., Forget, F., Montmessin, F. et al. Recent ice-rich deposits formed at high latitudes on Mars by sublimation of unstable equatorial ice during low obliquity. Nature 431, 1072–1075 (2004).

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