Irish scientists map wind and sand dune evolution on Mars for future missions

5 Nov 2015

A trio of Irish scientists has, for the first time, been able to map the winds and sand dune evolution on Mars, which could one day help humankind establish a colony on the Red Planet.

While our understanding of Mars appears to be increasing tenfold in the last few years, with the most recent discovery of liquid water on its surface being the most notable one, our understanding of the planet’s winds has been minimal at best.

Despite a number of landings, both successful and unsuccessful, on the planet’s surface by robot rovers, we have not had the important information needed on wind speeds as we have been reliant on these robots to measure wind speed at the surface level.

But now, Assistant Professor of Geography in the School of Natural Sciences in Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Dr Mary Bourke, along with professor Derek Jackson from the University of Ulster and Dr Thomas Smyth at Flinders University, have developed a new model that accurately charts sand dune evolution through wind.

Publishing their findings in Nature Communications, the trio created the model with the help from image data from the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and then compared patterns with wind models that were tested on dunes seen on Northern Ireland’s peninsula of Magilligan.

Mary Bourke

Prof Bourke examining ripples in the Namib Desert. Ripples and dunes on Mars are larger than those on Earth. Image via H. Viles

They worked with data specifically from the Proctor Crater region on the southern highlands of Mars, and discovered that ripples on the dunes moved around 1.5 metres per year.

“There’s a lot of global climatic models [for Mars], but they tend to only measure the wind at either 100m above the surface or at a minimum height of 20m, so we need to know what’s happening right at the surface,” Bourke told

“Wind is the most important process on the surface of Mars today. It’s the one thing that’s doing all the work in terms of the geology of the planet.”

But while the recent film adaptation of The Martian was criticised for its representation of Martian storms, Bourke said that there are still hurricanes on Mars, we just wouldn’t be able to feel them.

Mars dunes

Regional position of Proctor Crater, area over which airflow model was run and site locations of ripples studied. Image via Nature/Dr Bourke et al

“The speed and the velocity of the winds can be quite high,” she said. “There can be hurricane wind speeds, but because the atmosphere is so thin – at about 1,000th of what it is here – you need a lot higher wind speed to make up for that difference.

“You don’t get that happening as often. Even if you have a high wind, it might not produce the energy to actually move the sediment on the surface of the planet.”

Being able to accurately model how Martian winds are transforming the planet is equally important when considering future humans attempting to live on Mars.

By being able to easily and accurately model with 3D topographical data a particular point of Mars, time, money and the lives of future astronauts could be saved when choosing future landing sites and determining whether it would be a safe and habitable place to live.

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Mars-like dunes image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic