A monster Martian vortex

By Phil Plait | April 10, 2012 9:45 am

In March, I wrote about a dust devil on Mars spotted by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. It was 800 meters high, which I said was "huge".

Yeah. A week later, MRO spotted another dust devil… that was 20 kilometers high!

[Click to vortexenate.]


Dust devils form when air blows over warmer air rising off of the plains. If conditions are right, a vortex forms, becomes vertical, and you get a dust devil. It happens all the time on both Earth and Mars, and is common in the spring. It’s spring in the Martian northern hemisphere now, so there you go.

The folks at MRO put together a cool video to show what this monster would have looked like from the ground, and how it moved. Mind you, this is based on the image: shadows and sun angle give the height, and the shape of the shadow tells you the shape of the funnel. [You may have to refresh the page if you don’t see the video directly below.]

What a sight! I’ve seen dozens of dust devils, including some that were clearly hundreds of meters high, and they’re mesmerizing and eerie. This picture is a reminder that as different as Mars is from Earth, there are also some striking similarities. And that just because Mars is smaller and has a thinner atmosphere, not everything it does is on a smaller scale than here.

Related Posts:

Between the Devil and the deep Red Planet
The artwork of the Martian landscape
Martian dunes under the microscope
A tornado made of fire. Seriously.
The devil is in the details

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: dust devil, HiRISE, Mars, MRO

Comments (22)

  1. Grrrr, videos are blocked here at work. :( I wonder where in relation to different landers and rovers this monster took place. And how long do some of them last? So many questions!

  2. Kevin D

    I have a potentially stupid question: Why is the dust devil white, instead of being the same reddish hue of the ground (where the dust came from)?

  3. Keith Hearn

    I get no sense of scale from the animation. They need to add something like a farmhouse being carried aloft.

  4. Foil Hat Man

    Nice try… you know full well that what what the MRO spotted was UFO chemtrails. These videos were just put out to confuse the sheeple!

  5. CharonPDX

    @Keith Hearn: +1, Like, RT, etc, etc.

  6. Any idea of the wind velocity? Would this be a case where, considering the thinness of the Martian atmosphere, one could simply walk through the twister and not be blown about too much? Or would I be thrown like a Texas trailer park?

  7. Matthew

    I know that the EF scale dosen’t really apply to Martian storms, but is there a guess on what these guys can get to there?

    I.E. if a human was run over by one, would he just feel a gental breeze, get knocked to the ground, or be thrown about like a tornado would here on Earth?

  8. ron in austin

    It’s extreme weather caused by global warming on Mars!

  9. Wzrd1

    John, you’d not get more than a gentle tug on your space suit, the atmosphere on Mars is far too thin to impart much force on you.
    That said, the electrostatic field generated by the particles is quite high. One of the rover designers was concerned about electrostatic charges in dust devils and found no significant research on the subject, he then went out to Death Valley and made measurements.
    The rovers ended up with more ESD protection AND they were shut down if a dust devil was spotted heading toward them.
    Preparing for a Mars mission ended up with a discovery about a common terrestrial phenomena. Isn’t science cool? ūüėÄ

  10. eyesoars

    If you want to investigate these first hand, you could go out to the Boulder airport, where there are a couple of soaring operations. Most dust-devils are not visible, but are fully capable of keeping engineless aircraft aloft during the summer months.

    Vertical velocities in the boulder area run typically 3-10 knots vertically, with occasional runs up to 30 knots or so. If you’re crazy enough to fly under a developing thunderstorm, they can hit 70 knots or more. (NCAR in boulder used to fly an instrumented 2-32 glider *into* thunderstorms.)

    The soaring society of boulder: http://soarboulder.org/

    Mile High Gliding: http://www.milehighgliding.com/


  11. Travis

    What is the reason for dust devils on Mars being larger than ones found on earth?

  12. Infrared

    Many Martian mountains, at least as impressive, are larger than the ones on Earth due to Mars’ lower gravity.

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Infrared : Yep – The Tharsis Bulge volcanoes and Elysium ones especially. “Mount Olympus” or the Olympus Mons volcano being the highest (& maybe also flattest and least steeply sloping?) mountain in our solar system.

    Looks like a geyser almost in that first still – or a giant cloud of white smoke from a martian bushfire (“wildfire” you call ’em over in the States I gather) despite the firelessness of Mars. Great image. :-)


    “‚ÄúThere were no fires in the Martian desert. In fact, of all the worlds in the solar system only Earth with its oxygen-rich atmosphere knew fire.‚ÄĚ
    – Page 43, ‚ÄėVoyage‚Äô, Stephen Baxter, Harper-Collins, 1996.

  14. Nigel Depledge

    That is one very cool image.

  15. eyesoars

    (See next comment.)

  16. eyesoars

    Travis@12: What is the reason for dust devils on Mars being larger than ones found on earth?

    Those on earth have similar lateral dimensions.

    The vertical dimensions are not particularly comparable for a few reasons:

    (a) on earth, if you lift a parcel of air sufficiently, it will eventually cool enough that a cloud condenses from it. This can add considerable energy to the rising air, especially if it cools below the freezing point. Thunderheads (a common result of this process) can rise to 70,000′ (about 20km), punching into the stratosphere to do so.

    (b) The earth’s atmosphere contains the stratosphere, a layer of constant-temperature air that tends to clamp off tropospheric weather phenomena. I don’t know if Mars is known to have similar atmospheric layering (gravity and air density probably figure strongly in that question).

    (c) Solar heating drives all of these phenomena, and Mars has a lot less of that than Earth.

    (d) There are search selection criteria here, that probably substantially bias the detection of Martian dust-devils towards very large phenomena. This might well be the largest dust-devil on the planet, where on earth such an event might well escape detection.

    (e) The presence of large amounts of water and water vapor considerably change the dynamics of Earth’s atmosphere, and also apparently substantially diminishes the amount of very fine dust that makes Martian dust-devils so visible.

  17. One of the local “news” programs here in L.A. used the animation only while blathering about this story. They were going on about how NASA had shot pictures of the Martian dust devil, while the very clearly CGI footage played.


  18. Brian Too

    “Dust Devil” seems an inadequate name for such a creature.

  19. Unfortunately, I saw this video presented on CNN in such a way that viewers were given the impression that it was actual video footage from Mars. Some people may be perturbed when they learn that this wasn’t the case.

  20. Eric M

    @Kevin D

    Not a stupid question at all. I’m pretty sure that it has to do with the difference between the reflectivity of the dust on the surface and dust floating freely in the air. Dust on the surface lays flat and reflects most of it’s light at a specific angle of attack whereas free floating dust reflects it’s light in all directions appearing whiter and brighter.


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