Learn about the search for intelligent life in the universe, conducted by the NASA Ames Research Center, and the study of climate change on Mars.
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MaryLynn: One important factor in preserving life is the climate and the climate change. Dr. Lori Fenton studies climate change and its effect on life at NASA Ames Research Center. Lori: Climate change, that’s huge topic to study in Mars science, In fact all Earth sciences right now. So the idea of being able to understand climate change in another planet is just even cooler than understanding climate change on Earth. MaryLynn: Heat, atmosphere, and water are all important factors in the study of climate. Lori: I work with atmospheric modelers, I work with people who interpret images from Mars. Both scientist as well. Sometimes you get better perspective from talking to people who work on the Earth because you can actually touch the Earth, you can't touch Mars, because we've never been there. MaryLynn: Climate as a system is considered to be extremely complex, even small changes in initial conditions may result in radical changes in climate. Which is also called the butterfly effect. Lori: I think the biggest challenge is getting everything right. And that’s going to take years and years and years. And we may never fully do it. Understanding a climate system and how climate changes is really an accumulation of many, many different processes and all of them interact with one another. MaryLynn: The relationship between heat and cloud formation is one of the many interactions in a climate system. Even cloud formation itself is very difficult to model. Lori: As the temperature changes you get more and more clouds or less and less clouds. There's clouds from different heights they have bigger cloud droplets. Also things go on, and that’s temperature versus cloud. So, all of these different processes interact and come up, add up to the present climate system. MaryLynn: Studying the climate change on Earth is more challenging than studying the climate on Mars. Lori: Absolutely easier in some ways and more difficult in others. Earth has life on it and Mars doesn’t. And life, for example, vegetation comes and goes with the seasons. So if you're trying to study climate on the Earth, you have to account for that in your modeling. But there's no vegetation on Mars, so you can just zero that out and pretend vegetation doesn’t exist in your model. MaryLynn: According to Dr. Fenton, the greatest challenge in studying the climate on Mars is accessibility. Lori: But on Mars, we don’t have weather stations, we don’t have data, we don’t have people that are telling us what's going on. All we have are images and some remote data temperatures, for example. Maybe pressure that tell us that something is going on and it’s for us to infer exactly what's going on. MaryLynn: As a result of their studies over a 10 year period, scientists observed significant changes. Lori: I have a co-author named Paul Geister, who works for the United States Geological Survey in Flagstopper, Arizona. One of the things he's done is to take images from Mars and construct an entire map of Mars from the images. And he compared that from the images from the 1990’s with way back in to the 1970’s from the Viking era that there are some changes. MaryLynn: Important changes occurred as a result of dust storms. Lori: One of the things he found was that some places have gotten brighter and some places have gotten darker. More places got darker and brighter, so there is, you could say a net darkening at the surface of Mars. He wrote a paper where he described where things changed and how they changed. Because he went in with high resolution images to find out what happened to make the surface darker or brighter. In the 1970’s, there's a period of time where there are a lot of big dust storms on Mars. Mars is an amazing place, weather-wise, because there are dust storms that occur usually in the southern hemisphere summer. And sometimes they can go large enough to encompass the entire planet, which is crazy. Can you imagine a hurricane that swamps all of the Earth? It