Fluffy

Earth-like clouds on Mars reveal a striking similarity between the planets

So different, and yet so alike.

NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Earth and Mars are drastically different worlds.

But some features on the Red Planet look a lot like the ones we’re familiar with at home.

Take the clouds, for example.

During storms at the Martian north pole, dust clouds will sometimes form the same shapes as water clouds on Earth.

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From above, Mars dust clouds (left) have a chunky, pebble-like texture similar to ones found on Earth.

ESA/GCP/UPV/EHU Bilbao; EUMETSET

ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

But with the Martian atmosphere being so much colder and drier than Earth’s, scientists weren’t sure how the dust clouds were able to form similar shapes.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Writing this week in the journal Icarus, scientists detail an explanation nearly identical to how Earth’s clouds form — just with a dustier outcome.

Using data from Mars Express and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the team analyzed the atmospheric conditions during two storms in 2019 that took place near Mars’ north pole.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This sequence shows a storm that formed over the course of 70 minutes in May 2019, with the chunky clouds on the right.

ESA/GCP/UPV/EHU Bilbao

NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

These clouds form on both Mars and Earth due to a process called closed-cell convection.

Hot air rises in the center of the clouds, while cold air sinks at their edges to form pebble shapes.

NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

On Earth, rising hot air carries water molecules that form the actual cloud material we can see.

ESA/GCP/UPV/EHU Bilbao

But on Mars, it’s so dry that hot dust molecules are carried into the atmosphere instead of water.

While the same process is at play for cloud formation on both planets, the similarities end there.

MARK GARLICK/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Closed convection clouds tend to be most common on Earth in tropical regions — hot, moist areas in complete contrast with Mars’ chilly, dry north pole.

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“When thinking of a Mars-like atmosphere on Earth, one might easily think of a dry desert or polar region.

It is quite unexpected then, that through tracking the chaotic movement of dust storms, that parallels can be drawn with the processes that occur in Earth’s moist, hot, and decidedly very un-Mars-like tropical regions.”

Colin Wilson, ESA scientist for Mars Express, in a statement.