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Global warming and climate forcing by recent albedo changes on Mars

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 05 April 2007


For hundreds of years, scientists have tracked the changing appearance of Mars, first by hand drawings and later by photographs1,2. Because of this historical record, many classical albedo patterns have long been known to shift in appearance over time. Decadal variations of the martian surface albedo are generally attributed to removal and deposition of small amounts of relatively bright dust on the surface. Large swaths of the surface (up to 56 million km2) have been observed to darken or brighten by 10 per cent or more3,4,5. It is unknown, however, how these albedo changes affect wind circulation, dust transport and the feedback between these processes and the martian climate. Here we present predictions from a Mars general circulation model, indicating that the observed interannual albedo alterations strongly influence the martian environment. Results indicate enhanced wind stress in recently darkened areas and decreased wind stress in brightened areas, producing a positive feedback system in which the albedo changes strengthen the winds that generate the changes. The simulations also predict a net annual global warming of surface air temperatures by 0.65 K, enhancing dust lifting by increasing the likelihood of dust devil generation. The increase in global dust lifting by both wind stress and dust devils may affect the mechanisms that trigger large dust storm initiation, a poorly understood phenomenon, unique to Mars. In addition, predicted increases in summertime air temperatures at high southern latitudes would contribute to the rapid and steady scarp retreat that has been observed in the south polar residual ice for the past four Mars years6,7,8. Our results suggest that documented albedo changes affect recent climate change and large-scale weather patterns on Mars, and thus albedo variations are a necessary component of future atmospheric and climate studies.

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Figure 1: Albedo and changes in albedo.
Figure 2: The effect of albedo changes on air temperature and wind stress.
Figure 3: MGCM air temperature differences during perihelion season.

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We thank J. Schaeffer for help with the MGCM, and T. Michaels and R. Zurek for comments and suggestions. This work was supported by the NASA Mars Data Analysis Program.

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Correspondence to Lori K. Fenton or Paul E. Geissler.

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Fenton, L., Geissler, P. & Haberle, R. Global warming and climate forcing by recent albedo changes on Mars. Nature 446, 646–649 (2007).

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