Massive Dust Storm Swallows Mars

A martian dust storm that started in late May, silencing NASA’s Opportunity rover, has now wrapped itself around the entirety of Mars, radically transforming the appearance of the Red Planet. Amateur astronomers are taking pictures of the storm through backyard telescopes, and even naked-eye observers say they can see changes in the planet’s color.

Above: In these two images, the same side of Mars is facing Earth, yet the Red Planet looks totally different. Dust is hiding the planet’s usual surface markings in July 2018. Photo credit: Raffaello Lena.


“Mars has essentially vanished beneath the dust,” says longtime Mars photographer Damian Peach of the UK. He created this animation showing how much has changed:

“The animation shifts back and forth between a reference image of the Tharsis region taken by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft and my own image taken on June 28th,” he explains. “The volcanic peaks of Tharsis remain clear, and also a dark spot in Valles Marineris, but little else ties up with known albedo markings, especially the dark/light streaks.”

Mars is now approaching Earth for a 15-year close encounter in late July 2018. Astronomers have had this month marked on their calendars for years, expecting unusually clear views of the Red Planet. The dust storm may have other ideas.


64 thoughts on “Massive Dust Storm Swallows Mars

  1. Well that’s climate change I can believe in. (I know, I know, weather is not climate and blah blah. =)

    And to think that back on Earth there’s people seriously splitting hairs and losing sleep over half-degree variations over many decades.

    • I blame it on Loriot’s Steinlaus, a burrower feeding on silicates. They are very active at this time, here on earth too- just look at the PM levels in all major cities. Nothing to do with diesel.

  2. What keeps the dust particles suspended in such a thin atmosphere? What would even cause such a severe dust storm in the first place. Must be global warming or whatever their calling it these days.

        • On further reading it appears that dust storms become more prevalent when Mars gets closer to the sun. It has something to do with increasing wind generation because of temperature contrasts.

          At the same time the polar caps are melting, releasing copious amounts of CO2 and there is an increase in surface pressure, which leaves the dust particles suspended up to 40 miles high.

          • “…dust storms become more prevalent when Mars gets closer to the sun. ”

            Can’t be. We know from our studies of climate change here on earth that the sun has no impact on the climate of a planet. There must be too many sinners on Mars polluting the atmosphere. In fact, come to think of it, did Mars have these problems before Earthlings started driving their rovers around up there?

            Hah! Q.E.D. !

    • Martians. Duh… We’re going to be close to them this summer, they value their privacy, so up comes the dust storm.

      Also explains why they are not on Facebook, too – privacy!

    • The dust grain size and the lack of precipitable water keeps it airborne in Mar’s atmosphere.

      It is the suspended particle size that determines the color of the sky.

      Earth is a blue sky planet.
      Mars is a red sky planet.

      When volcanoes put lots of aerosols (sub-micron size) into the stratosphere and tropopause, we have red sunsets.

      Earth generally has nanometer particles scattering light.
      Mars has just below sub-micron size particles scattering sunlight.
      That size distribution controls what part of the spectrum is reflected and what is absorbed.

      • Should have seen our reddish and grayish red sunset skies here in the Palouse Country last night, thanks to the winds.

      • From here reddish, but for the local martian auto traffic, pink. Why two different scatterings?

    • 2 big reasons.
      1) the dust is very fine and….
      2) Mars gravity is 3/8 of Earth’s. Stuff is easier to keep aloft and it falls much much slower.

    • School doesn’t start until the Martian autumn, so Jim and Frank will be out with Willis on the canals, trying to find another Martian cabbage for a biology paper they can present at the start of class.

  3. Just think, some say we will colonize that planet one day. Why is beyond me. Just kidding… there is no way in heck that we will ever put people on Mars and return them to Earth.

    • That is just like what countless people with no imagination said as explorers and inventors through the ages achieved the impossible none the less. History is not kind to people that make such assertions.

    • Let’s hope the dust settles before Elon gets there.
      The sooner Elon gets there, the better.

    • At least not until we find a practical way to shield the travellers from high energy radiation etc. Generally this requires mass and therein lies the problem… We would be much better served putting a base on the moon and learning from that while we figure out how to cross the space between planets without frying everyone. The Mars hype is to keep the public and potential investors interested in space.

      • A lunar base is very attractive for several reasons. The primary one being it is already in Earth’s gravity system which affords many benefits, such as fuel depots parked at L1.
        Close proximity, we can get there and back in less than 3 days.
        Resupply much easier and evacuation possible. (evacuation from Mars….not so much)
        Communication is almost real time with only a 1.3 s delay.
        Pre-emplacement of supplies is easier.
        Return missions could be launched with rail-guns.
        Long term physiological changes due to low gravity may be assessed.
        Radiation protection schemes may be addressed.
        Construction methods in low gravity may be assessed. (not as easy as you’d think)

        • The Moon also has a lot of advantages for integrated circuit manufacturing:
          – free high grade vacuum. IC manufacturers spend a fortune on vacuum pumps.
          – plentiful light metals and semi-conductor elements.

      • The Moon is a more realistic target for permanent bases in the near term, as outlined by ‘rocketscientist’ below. The issues with Mars can be overcome, it’s just a very big engineering challenge. Radiation is a problem on both Mars and the Moon, which can be mitigated with covered trench habitats. Doing surface activity when the planet is facing away from the Sun will also help mitigate exposure, and robots are getting more capable every year.

        I just find it tiring when people say there is no way humans will ever do XYZ. People said powered vehicles will never exceed 15 mph, never achieve flight, never break the sound barrier, never land on the Moon, etc., etc.. Betting against humans setting up permanent bases on the other planets is a poor bet, especially if no time frame is stipulated.

    • Of course we will.
      “Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

      That being said there are a few caveats.
      Firstly when we send humans to Mars, they won’t be able to stay very long unless we have emplaced supplies and equipment ahead of their arrival. Secondly long term residents (more than 2 years?) won’t be able to easily return to Earth if at all. This will be due to the physiological changes to their bodies created by the low gravity. Reentry into Earth’s atmosphere would probably kill them due to the forces, if they survive the return trip. How humans born into low gravity environments develop is unknown. Colonizers will probably never be able to return to Earth.

      I suggest reading Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”. While entertaining it gets most of the science correct.

    • Definitely not with Elon’s Tesla, on the was right now. Last I heard it’ll miss by 1 million miles.

  4. It will be interesting to see if the dust has any impact on Mars’ mean global temperature.

    The atmosphere is 95% CO2, yet the mean temperature is not observed to rise above the theoretical blackbody effective temperature of 210K.

    • It still gets cold in the desert at night on Earth, too. If Mars still had water, things would be different for sure.

  5. >>
    The dust storm may have other ideas.

    It’s similar to living in the Pacific Northwest. Every time something interesting happens in the sky, the weather sometimes has other ideas. I missed the great view of Saturn last month–too cloudy.


    • Jim, have another go…the view is still great through a decent sized telescope! It’s not often you can see things only 10m thick in the sky (the rings) so far away.

      • Saturn does look good tonight. My scope isn’t very good, but I can just make out the rings. The moons of Jupiter are the best viewing with my scope, but Jupiter’s playing hide-n-seek in the trees tonight.


      • I spent a couple of nights at Lake Chelan a few years ago. The stars were beautiful and the Milky Way really stands out there. There were brush fires all the next day, so the stars were hidden by smoke.


        • That’s the other cloudy problem here in the PNW. Sky clears of rain around now until October but then fills with smoke from wild fires.

    • The volcanic fog (vog) from the Kilauea eruption has finally cleared over my back yard in Kona, and now, this. Oh well, still have good views of Saturn and even Jupiter.

  6. I understand that some of the other planets had temperatures that were rising in step with Earth. I wonder if this storm on Mars portends anything about Earth’s climate? Maybe changes happen more quickly on a simpler planet?

    • Has this ever been observed in the past. We have had good capable telescope coverage for at least 100 years. If not then there is something to discuss.
      I will bet you if there are Martians they will not have observed the temperature fluctuation over the last 150 years on Earth.

  7. The Martian Global Dust storm is likely to span till September or October. Predicted.
    By the Spin-Orbital momentum transfer hypothesis. The hypothesis predicted a peak in September. It started earlier than predicted. Will likely continue till abating in October.

    As meager as the Martian winds are, once the dust is mobilized, it will stay there for months.

    • I noticed that the scientist who proposed this theory, J Shirley, wrongly predicted that there would be a global storm in the fall of 2016. I think he is missing a key ingredient to his theory. That missing ingredient has to do with the state of the Sun, imo.

      I became interested after reading the link which you posted last week, and also due to my seeing a possible solar component to his theory, which I think would fill in and complement his ideas as to the cause behind these storms. I looked up more on the subject including reading several posts from JPL. That is where I noted his prediction from 2016 which never materialized.

  8. Mars has an atmosphere that is around 96% CO2. No wonder they have such devastating weather.
    Even though Mars’ atmospheric pressure is about 1/160th of earth’s, there is about 3.6 times more total CO2 in the atmosphere of Mars than earth. With all this “greenhouse gas”, you would think that the greenhouse effect would be more. It is all of half a degree, as opposed to the 33 degrees for earth. Venus has atmospheric pressure 92-93 times that of earth and also has an atmosphere that is almost entirely composed of CO2, but has a greenhouse effect vastly greater.
    Atmospheric pressure is the dominant factor of the greenhouse effect. The content makes little difference. On earth, the greenhouse effect is mostly localized by water vapour, with the heat radiating back to space eventually. PV=nRT . Pressure is proportional to temperature. All the bulldust, as opposed to Marsdust that CO2 causes any temperature or weather related issues is just bulldust.
    Perhaps there are Marsbeetles on Mars to swallow all the Marsdust, just as there are dungbeetles (cAGW believers) on earth that swallow all the BS served up to them.

    • “Atmospheric pressure is the dominant factor of the greenhouse effect.”

      Yes, there is a lot we haven’t figured out about the climate and how it works.

    • Pressure is key. I read an interesting geology paper that stated that the Mediterranean closed at Gilbrater at some point, allowing the basin to dry up despite the inflow of big rivers like Nile. Someone was trying to figure out what life would have been like down-stream on the Nile, and they concluded life would have been impossible, due to high temperatures caused by the sea-level lowering so much that air pressure would be very high.

  9. Anybody else notice the growth of the polar ice? Perhaps without the water and denser atmosphere, Mars responds to solar minima faster than Earth?

    • Pop,

      Actually I think you’ll find the south polar cap is shrinking quite rapidly now as it passes from spring into summer over the next month or two. It will hopefully still be visible despite the dust for a while in a moderately sized backyard telescope. Best viewing will be mid July to mid August (dust permitting).

  10. “Turning the red planet green: NASA proposes radical plan to surround Mars with a magnetic field to restore an ‘Earth-like’ atmosphere
    Plan would create ‘artificial magnetic field’ in orbit between Mars and the sun
    This would put Mars inside ‘magnetotail’ protecting it from the harsh solar wind
    In just years, simulations show planet could achieve an ‘Earth comparable field’
    This would create an environment that could support human explorers ”

  11. The real question is how did Trump and the Russians collude to cause this?!?!?

    Tried to find some older images of Mars with storm events and not having much luck. I remember quite a few years ago reading about dust storms on Mars but can’t find any image references.

  12. Looking at the varying extension of the ice caps on the poles of mars;

    Sure there is a connection with the missing sunspots on our energy spending star.

  13. Martians testing their interplanetary propulsion system as their planet nears it’s closest approach to earth. “No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own ..” Apologies to HG.

    • Marvin was testing out his Uranium Pu-36 Explosive Space Modulator (Earth was blocking his view of Venus again) and had a minor mishap.

  14. It is the grand solar minimum that causes all this. More cosmic radiation in the absence of solar wind and sunspots. And boy o boy are we in for a treat here on earth too!

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