High-altitude water ice cloud formation on Mars controlled by interplanetary dust particles


Submicrometre-size meteoric smoke aggregates form when interplanetary dust particles ablate and re-coagulate in the Martian atmosphere. The MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) satellite has detected pervasive ionized metallic layers due to meteor ablation at an 80–90 km altitude, which suggests a continuous supply of meteoric smoke particles that settle to lower altitudes. Until now, meteoric smoke has been neglected in general circulation model studies of the formation of Martian water ice clouds. Here we show that when meteoric smoke is included in simulations of the atmospheric circulation on Mars, mesospheric water ice clouds form at low pressures and in discrete layers, polar hood clouds extend to higher altitudes and the seasonal Hadley cell is weakened. Furthermore, we find that the middle atmosphere water ice clouds respond to and influence the diurnal and semidiurnal migrating thermal tides. We conclude that Mars atmospheric simulations that neglect meteoric smoke do not reproduce the observed spatial distribution of water ice clouds and miss crucial radiative impacts on the overall atmospheric dynamics.

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Fig. 1: The addition of IDPs is important for the formation of middle atmosphere cloud layers at mid and high latitudes.
Fig. 2: Clouds form where the thermal tide is strongest.
Fig. 3: Wintertime polar hood clouds are too shallow in simulations without IDPs.
Fig. 4: The semidiurnal component of the thermal tide is enhanced by cloud radiative feedbacks.

Data availability

MCS retrieval data that support the findings of this study are available as Reduced Data Records in the Planetary Data System Atmospheres Node (https://atmos.nmsu.edu/data_and_services/atmospheres_data/MARS/mcs.html). The simulation data used in this study are stored on the National Center for Atmospheric Research Cheyenne supercomputer and can be made available from the corresponding author upon request.

Code availability

Data processing techniques are available on request from the corresponding author. The MarsCAM-CARMA general circulation model is archived on the CU Boulder Open Science Framework (https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.I0/7YBZE).


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This material is based on work supported by NASA’s Habitable Worlds Program, NNX16AO80G, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under grant no. 1144083 and NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science Program NNX15AE05G. We thank R. Urata, J. Wilson and D. Marsh for helpful suggestions. We thank J. Plane for providing the size distributions of ablated IDPs and insight into their abundance and chemistry.

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V.L.H. and O.B.T contributed to the scientific discussions and designed the study. V.L.H. performed all the computer simulations, developed the parameterizations for the NCAR Mars GCM and wrote the manuscript. N.G.H provided and analysed the MCS observational data for comparison with the model results.

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Correspondence to V. L Hartwick.

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Hartwick, V.L., Toon, O.B. & Heavens, N.G. High-altitude water ice cloud formation on Mars controlled by interplanetary dust particles. Nat. Geosci. 12, 516–521 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-019-0379-6

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