Diurnal Variation in Martian Dust Devil Activity

Chapman, R. M.; Lewis, S. R.; Balme, M. and Steele, L. J. (2017). Diurnal Variation in Martian Dust Devil Activity. Icarus, 292 pp. 154–167.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.icarus.2017.01.003


We show that the dust devil parameterisation in use in most Mars Global Circulation Models (MGCMs) results in an unexpectedly high level of dust devil activity during morning hours.

Prior expectations of the diurnal variation of Martian dust devils are based mainly upon the observed behaviour of terrestrial dust devils: i.e. that the majority occur during the afternoon. We instead find that large areas of the Martian surface experience dust devil activity during the morning in our MGCM, and that many locations experience a peak in dust devil activity before mid-sol.

We find that the diurnal variation in dust devil activity is governed by near-surface wind speeds. Within the range of daylight hours, higher wind speeds tend to produce higher levels of dust devil activity, rather than the activity simply being governed by the availability of heat at the planet's surface, which peaks in early afternoon.

Evidence for whether the phenomenon we observe is real or an artefact of the parameterisation is inconclusive. We compare our results with surface-based observations of Martian dust devil timings and obtain a good match with the majority of surveys. We do not find a good match with orbital observations, which identify a diurnal distribution more closely matching that of terrestrial dust devils, but orbital observations have limited temporal coverage, biased towards the early afternoon.

We propose that the generally accepted description of dust devil behaviour on Mars is incomplete, and that theories of dust devil formation may need to be modified specifically for the Martian environment. Further surveys of dust devil observations are required to support any such modifications. These surveys should include both surface and orbital observations, and the range of observations must encompass the full diurnal period and consider the wider meteorological context surrounding the observations.

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