2016 Resembles Past Global Dust Storm Years on MarsThis graphic indicates a similarity between 2016 (dark blue line) and five past years in which Mars has experienced a global dust storm (orange lines and band), compared to years with no global dust storm (blue-green lines and band). The arrow nearly midway across in the dark blue line indicates the Mars time of year in late September 2016.
A key factor in the graph is the orbital angular momentum of Mars, which would be steady in a system of only one planet orbiting the sun, but varies due to relatively small effects of having other planets in the solar system.
The horizontal scale is time of year on Mars, starting at left with the planet's farthest distance from the sun in each orbit. This point in the Mars year, called "Mars aphelion," corresponds to late autumn in the southern hemisphere. Numeric values on the horizontal axis are in Earth years; each Mars year lasts for about 1.9 Earth years.
The vertical scale bar at left applies only to the black-line curve on the graph. The amount of solar energy entering Mars' atmosphere (in watts per square meter) peaks at the time of year when Mars is closest to the sun, corresponding to late spring in the southern hemisphere. The duration of Mars' dust storm season, as indicated, brackets the time of maximum solar input to the atmosphere.
The scale bar at right, for orbital angular momentum, applies to the blue, brown and blue-green curves on the graph. The values are based on mass, velocity and distance from the gravitational center of the solar system. Additional information on the units is in a 2015 paper in the journal Icarus, from which this graph is derived. The band shaded in orange is superimposed on the curves of angular momentum for five Mars years that were accompanied by global dust storms in 1956, 1971, 1982, 1994 and 2007. Brown diamond symbols on the curves for these years in indicate the times when the global storms began. The band shaded blue-green lies atop angular momentum curves for six years when no global dust storms occurred: 1939, 1975, 1988, 1998, 2000 and 2011.
Note that in 2016, as in the pattern of curves for years with global dust storms, the start of the dust storm season corresponded to a period of increasing orbital angular momentum. In years with no global storm, angular momentum was declining at that point. Observations of whether dust from regional storms on Mars spreads globally in late 2016 or early 2017 will determine whether this correspondence holds up for the current Mars year.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech