BREAKING: Martian avalanche caught in the act!

By Phil Plait | March 3, 2008 12:37 pm

This is TOTALLY HAWESOME: an avalanche on Mars was caught in the act by the HiRISE camera.

This picture shows the billowing dust cloud from an avalanche of ice and dust along scarps — sheer cliffs — near the north pole of Mars. To give you a sense of scale, the cloud is about 180 meters across, and about the same distance from the base of the cliff.

Holy cow.

You can see the cliff in the middle of the picture. It’s 700 meters high (2300 feet!) and slopes at about 60 degrees; that’s pretty close to vertical. To the left you can see white carbon-dioxide frost (which is evaporating as spring ensues in the Martian northern hemisphere) at the top of the cliff.

If my (very) rough calculations are accurate, it would take a rock about 20 seconds to fall from the top of the cliff, and would hit the bottom at about 70 meters/second, or about 150 miles per hour. Look out below!

You can read lots more about this on the HiRISE page.

Sidenote: after the disappointing news from HiRISE this weekend, I feel a lot better about this. Totally amazing. I might even say ground breaking.

Update: The HiRISE blog has a more personal take on this as well.

MORE ABOUT: avalanche, cliff, HiRISE, Mars

Comments (54)

  1. arygaetu

    I hope they are alive

  2. Jeffersonian
  3. Yoshi_3up

    I hope that no martians were there when the avalanche left off…

    Back on topic, this is really, really awesome. REALLY awesome.

    Really awesome.

  4. Rob P.

    Main Entry: 1av·a·lanche
    Pronunciation: ?a-v?-?lanch
    Function: noun
    Etymology: French, from French dialect (Franco-Provençal) lavantse, avalantse
    Date: 1771
    1 : a large mass of snow, ice, earth, *rock*, or other material in swift motion down a mountainside or over a precipice

  5. Eddie

    Simply amazing. Did they capture this on video? That would be very interesting to watch…

  6. Michelle

    Woah sweet! What are the odds?

    Now is there a video of it?

  7. Blu-Ray-Ven

    THIS JUST IN – skiing martians cuase avalanche, haha, kidng

    talk about the right plance on the right time for that satilite

  8. Law Mom

    Oh dear. I hope Little Bigfoot’s OK.

  9. Rand

    Very punny, Phil.

  10. Michelle

    @Law Mom: I’m sorry. He didn’t make it. :(

  11. wright

    Magnificent. More, this is the kind of event that humans respond to. For many of us, the other bodies of the solar system are not quite real. For all the lovely images, they are seen as terribly distant, mostly static places where nothing interesting happens.

    But this landslide is a visceral reminder that ALL the planets, not just ours, are dynamic places. Leaving aside the question of life and liquid water, Mars is showing itself as a unique world deserving closer examination.

    We humans love stories. People will look at that image and get interested in just where and why it happened. They will compare it to avalanches and landscapes that they have seen themselves. They will ask questions.

    The sense of the unknown as wonderful and provocative is precious. It can lead people to keep asking questions all their lives. Images like that can spark just that reaction.

  12. Moose

    Woah! Awesome pic!

  13. ABR
  14. Cusp

    Errr – 60 degrees is still 30 degrees away from being vertical. Steep, yes, vertical – no

  15. Very cool! Caught in the act.

  16. Daffy

    Wow…my species managed to capture an avalanche on another world. I am seriously in awe.

  17. Yoshi_3up

    I bet that RIGHT NOW, SOMEWHERE, there’s a guy on a bar saying that there are martians and this is the IRREFUTABLE PROOF that they exist.

  18. kebsis

    I have a question about Martian frozen CO2. Is it possible that water is frozen in Mars’ solid CO2 in small quantities? If so, how much? Would it be possible for life to live off of a minute amount of water frozen among the CO2 glaciers?

  19. kebsis

    Yoshi_3up: I agree, but why would he be sitting on a bar?

  20. quasidog

    So this would be … the first ‘landslide type event’ ever recorded LIVE, outside of our own planet ? Cool.

  21. It’s just another NASA conspiracy to wipe out evidence of little bigfoot!

  22. Chip

    And I was getting set to build at the base of that cliff a replica of the beautiful house of Dr. Morbius on Altair 4. Looks like I’ll have to settle for the Dunes of Hellas. 😉

    But wow – that is so cool! Somewhere there’s also a big Martian dust devil caught on camera too, but this one is really big. Bigger (and redder) than the magnificent falling glacier walls at Earth’s poles.

  23. Thomas Siefert

    Calm down, it’s the blokes from Top Gear on another of their challenges:

  24. shane

    I can see the face of Satan in the cloud.

  25. Jon H

    Where’s the kaboom? There’s supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom?!

  26. MandyDax

    @Jon H: Shouldn’t that be Mars-shattering kaboom?

    I think you’re right, though, the Martians are using a modified version of the Illudium Pu-36 Explosive Space Modulators for mining operations.

  27. Barbara

    shane and JonH: Ha ha, very funny. :)

    wright: I loved what you wrote. It reminded me of Pres. Bartlet’s final speech in the episode “Galileo” from The West Wing (Season 2, episode 9). Thanks.

    Mars: Thanks for showing us your stuff.

  28. Dave Hall

    Do I see a couple of footprints on the left at the top of the escarpment? Is there a Martian coyote at the bottom in the dust?

    I cannot look at the image without Warner Brothers cartoon music running through my head!

  29. Dennis

    Verry Verry Cool!!

  30. Candace

    That is AMAZING!

  31. Get it right, people!

    It’s “Illudium Q-38 Explosive Space Modulator.” Accent on the last syllable.

  32. BovineSupreme

    That’s way cool.

    I am concerned about Martain Bigfoot, he is ok right? Hopefully he was at work when this happened.

  33. Tom

    Wow. That is frack’n darn cool!!
    I saw that photo yesterday and got stuck on it for about 1/2 hour just staring at it. woooo!

  34. billsmithaz

    Damn. Gotta revise the upper end of my Coolness Scale(tm) again. Every time I think I’ve got the thing calibrated correctly, something cooler comes along.

  35. ohiobuckeye

    Global warming strikes Mars!
    It would appear that the norhtern coasts of the Earth are not the only planet suffering from climate change. Freeze/thaw cycles on Mars are most likely to blame as CO2 and H2O change their states. Could increased solar output be causing this?

  36. Doris B.

    Cusp, put yourself at the top of a 60 degree incline and look over the edge and see how verticle it “seems” to you…….

  37. Timothy

    One of the coolest things about this is not only watching a process in action, but that the region was imaged previously as part of a study of ongoing processes in the polar region.

    It may be, though, that even one of the previous images caught an avalanche in the act.

    Examine the region of the biggest of the recent avalanches in image
    The region easy to spot in the larger image because of the distinctive vertical chamfer along the top edge of the ice just upslope from the avalanche.

    Now compare that to the same region in

    There appears to be a large dust cloud several hundred feet away (down, in the orientation of these images) in the earlier image that’s not in the later image!

    I haven’t seen any public mention of this, but it would be very fascinating to have discovered a place that’s undergoing such frequent active changes. Then again, it may not be surprising since the later image shows four distinct avalanches happening at different places along the scarp.

    – Timothy
    HiRISE Optical Integration Team

  38. CR

    When following the link in the color photo BA embedded above, we see the whole scarp, with two zoom-in enlargements of the separate avalanches. But look closely at the first set of zoom-ins. In the pic of the larger but less distinct cloud (the one that’s more spread/settled out, or the topmost avalanche relative to the photo’s orientation), there appears to be a third cloud along the scarp, near the top of the zoom-in’s frame. It’s far less distinct than the others, but does appear to be a billowing cloud & its shadow. (It’s also visible in the first overall shot of the scarp, near the top of the topmost highlighted rectangle.)

    I hope that all made sense…

    Another avalanche? Or a trick of light & shadow along the terrain?

  39. CR

    Just re-read the last paragraph in Timothy’s post about multiple avalanches… I missed that the first time around! I presume I’m pointing out one of those four he mentioned.

    So, any speculation on why multiple avalanches occurred at the same time? Quake activity? Nearby meteorite impact?

    In any event, it’s very cool! Thrills me as much as the rover pics of the dust devils did a couple years back…

  40. Timothy

    CR, yes, that’s one of the four simultaneous avalanches in that image. As far as why, the Science Team is hotly debating all aspects of the processes in this image, and HiRISE will continue to image the area as spring continues to warm the CO2 ice.

    My contention that one of the earlier images may contain an avalanche as well may have been premature. Some of the Science Team postulate that updraft winds lift fine dust at the base of the scarp to form the dust clouds. More will doubtless be released as more images are gathered.

  41. Doug

    Hey Cusp…Good point. I can still drive my Hummer up it!!!!

    Awesome PICS….

  42. This is very cool, I wish that comet would have hit mars last month.


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