Simulating the interannual variability of major dust storms on Mars using variable lifting thresholds

Mulholland, David P.; Read, Peter L. and Lewis, Stephen R. (2013). Simulating the interannual variability of major dust storms on Mars using variable lifting thresholds. Icarus, 223(1) pp. 344–358.




The redistribution of a finite amount of Martian surface dust during global dust storms and in the intervening periods has been modelled in a dust lifting version of the UK Mars General Circulation Model. When using a constant, uniform threshold in the model’s wind stress lifting parameterisation and assuming an unlimited supply of surface dust, multiannual simulations displayed some variability in dust lifting activity from year to year, arising from internal variability manifested in surface wind stress, but dust storms were limited in size and formed within a relatively short seasonal window. Lifting thresholds were then allowed to vary at each model gridpoint, dependent on the rates of emission or deposition of dust. This enhanced interannual variability in dust storm magnitude and timing, such that model storms covered most of the observed ranges in size and initiation date within a single multiannual simulation. Peak storm magnitude in a given year was primarily determined by the availability of surface dust at a number of key sites in the southern hemisphere. The observed global dust storm (GDS) frequency of roughly one in every three years was approximately reproduced, but the model failed to generate these GDSs spontaneously in the southern hemisphere, where they have typically been observed to initiate. After several years of simulation, the surface threshold field — a proxy for net change in surface dust density — showed good qualitative agreement with the observed pattern of Martian surface dust cover. The model produced a net northward cross-equatorial dust mass flux, which necessitated the addition of an artificial threshold decrease rate in order to allow the continued generation of dust storms over the course of a multiannual simulation. At standard model resolution, for the southward mass flux due to cross-equatorial flushing storms to offset the northward flux due to GDSs on a timescale of ∼3 years would require an increase in the former by a factor of 3–4. Results at higher model resolution and uncertainties in dust vertical profiles mean that quasi-periodic redistribution of dust on such a timescale nevertheless appears to be a plausible explanation for the observed GDS frequency.

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