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Earth vs. Mars: Polar Regions Compared

by Oceanwide Expeditions Blog

It’s common knowledge that Mars has its own polar regions, typically referred to as the Martian ice caps. But is that all there is to it, or are there distinctions between the two?
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Peas in a pod or polar opposites?

It’s common knowledge that Mars, like Earth, has its own polar regions - typically called the Martian ice caps - and that these regions, also like Earth, are located at the north and south poles and have much lower temperatures than the areas in-between

But is that all there is to it, or are there distinctions between the two?

For instance, are the Martian polar regions colder or warmer? Dryer or wetter? Completely devoid of life or swarming with greener but far more technologically advanced penguins?

Though Oceanwide has not (yet) launched polar cruises on the Red Planet, we were able to find a few answers, momentarily moving our focus from Earth to outer space.

Frosted Martian dunes with dark basaltic sand formations - Image by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Temperature: sorta cold vs. scary cold

Temperatures on the Antarctic Continent drop to about -65°C (-85°F) in the austral winter (June to September) and in the Arctic hover around -43°C (-45°F) in the boreal winter (December to March).

This means that as long as you’ve dressed accordingly – yes to the down jacket, no to the fishnet stockings – you’ll not only survive a reasonable span of time in Earth’s polar weather, but you’ll probably be quite comfortable.

For this reason, many of our passengers are surprised at how warm it is in both the Arctic and Antarctic during our regular summer voyages.

The polar regions of Mars, however, see fewer travelers. And for now, this is for the best.

Over there, Antarctica’s winter temperatures would seem tropical by comparison, better suited for swimming gear than a fur-lined jacket.

This is because polar Mars can drop to a bone-shattering -150°C (-238°F).

To put that in perspective, your freezer is probably around -18°C (0°F). And to further drive the point home, the lowest ground temperature yet recorded on Earth has only been -89.2°C (-128.6°F) at Vostok Station, Antarctica, on July 21, 1983.

Martian impact crater with residual ice - Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum) [CC BY-SA 3.0-igo (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0-igo) 

Ice composition: water only vs. mostly water

What would a polar region be without ice? Like everywhere else, probably.

Indeed, frozen water (in the form of snow, glaciers, icebergs) is the most recognizable feature of our polar landscape. And the same goes for Mars.

Mostly.

Earth’s polar ice is entirely composed of water, not counting the tiny air bubbles locked inside. And as expected, this ice usually grows in the winter and shrinks in the summer.

On Mars, the composition is a little different.

Martian avalanche near north pole - Image by NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

While the bulk of Mars’s polar ice is water, the rest is frozen carbon dioxide - in other words, dry ice. This dry ice forms a (relatively) thin outer layer to the water-based portion of the Martian ice caps.

But don’t go changing the venue of your Halloween party just yet: Mars’s dry ice is only about one meter (three feet) deep in the north and eight meters (26 feet) deep in the south.

If you’re repeating “only” with an air of incredulity, read on...

Frozen CO2 in Martian south pole - Image by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

The water ice underneath Mars’s dry ice sheath is gargantuan by contrast, two km (1.2 miles) thick in the north and a respectable three km (1.7 miles) thick in the south.

This makes Antarctica the closest equivalent to Mars in terms of ice volume, since Antarctica’s sheets are around the same thickness. Moreover, Antarctica’s Dry Valleys are so Mars-like they’ve even been used as a testing ground for future Martian outposts.

Earth’s North Pole, on the other hand, is unlike the Martian one in that it’s basically just shifting sheets of ice over a liquid ocean.

Nothing like this exists on Mars, if it ever did. Though there is indeed evidence that Mars once had liquid oceans, they have long ago turned to ice, vapor, and small brines in the soil - a clean polar desert by any reckoning.

T.E. Lawrence would’ve loved it.

Frost and ice in Mars’s Chasma Boreale valley - NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wildlife: Plentiful life vs. possible life

Earth’s polar regions are not only mild compared to Mars, they’re also filled with some of the most impressive, well-adapted, multi-faceted animals on our planet.

Consider only the Arctic (i.e., Northern Hemisphere): Polar bears, Arctic foxes, musk oxen, walruses, seals, reindeer, multiple species of whale, and even more species of seabird are scattered across Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland, and Northern Norway.

If that’s not ample reason for an Arctic trip, we don’t know what is.

In fact, the vast northern continents within the Arctic Circle provide for wildlife diversity beyond anything seen in the Antarctic.

But does that mean the Southern Hemisphere polar regions are barren by comparison?

Not at all! 

Year after year, thousands of people whisk off on Antarctica cruises just for the whale-watching and bird life (especially the penguins), to say nothing of the Antarctic’s immense gallery of glacial scenery.

As for Mars, the party’s either long since over or far from beginning: There is yet no concrete evidence of even the simplest life there. Even so, many scientists think there may be microbial life lurking beneath the surface of Mars’s icy polar soil.

And until Elon Musk makes it possible, that’s the only place life could survive there.

Springtime in the Martian south pole - Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum) [CC BY-SA 3.0-igo (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0-igo) 

So where should you travel: Earth’s polar regions or the Martian variety?

As usual, it depends on what you’re looking for.

Is it an airless, probably lifeless, gamma-blasted wasteland in which the low-pressure, low-oxygen environment would make any human without a space suit pass out after 10 seconds, suffer irreparable brain damage by 90 seconds, and go belly-up soon after?

Or is it a milder (and much closer) polar terrain filled with beautiful wildlife and adventure opportunities, all of which you can enjoy while sailing on a state-of-the-art vessel that boasts an expert expedition staff, veteran crew, and fully stocked galley bar?

Life is full of choices.

Martian northern ice cap - Image by Kevin Gill from LA, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Title image by NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons ~ © NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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