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Ice on Mars

Planetary Sciences

Hidden glaciers on the surface of Mars contain enough water to blanket the Red Planet in a layer of water over two meters deep, found Joe Levy, a research associate at the Jackson School of Geosciences, and researchers from Mount Holyoke College and Brown University.

Their findings were published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets in August 2014.

Debris-covered glaciers are a type of glacier with ice that is insulated by layers of surface rock and sand. The researchers used satellite images and laser altimeter data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to search for topological indicators of debris-covered glaciers, such as downslope, concentric lineations, convex-up topography, and complex ridges called “brain terrain.”

“It appears that [debris-covered glaciers] are everywhere,” said Levy, who led the research team. “If you melted them all down it would be a global ocean on Mars.”

The debris-covered glaciers give clues into Mars’ past climate conditions and indicate that the past climate was very different from today, supporting extended periods of ice deposition that enabled the glaciers to build up ice hundreds of meters thick.

But debris-covered glaciers are not only a Martian phenomenon. Levy and Jack Holt, a research associate professor at the Jackson School, study them on Earth, too. In the summer of 2015 they led a class of graduate and undergraduate students to study and map a debris-covered glacier in Wyoming.

“What makes this field course different is it’s really experimental,” Levy said. “Students get a handle on what it’s like to explore a land form that very little work has been done on…and leave with a very specialized knowledge about how you use tools…and design experiments.”