Earth vs. Mars: Polar Regions Compared


Peas in a pod or polar opposites?

It’s common knowledge that Mars, like Earth, has its own polar regions – usually referred to as the Martian ice caps.

These ice caps are located at the northern and southern ends of Mars and, also like Earth’s, and likewise have much lower temperatures than the rest of the planet.

But is that all there is to it, or are there distinctions between the planets’ polar regions? Is the Mars version colder or warmer, dryer or wetter, completely devoid of life or swarming with greener but far more technologically advanced penguins?

Though Oceanwide has not (yet) not launched voyages on Mars, we were able to find a few answers to these questions, momentarily moving our focus from Earth to outer space.

Image by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Temperature: sorta cold vs. scary cold

Temps on the Antarctic Continent drop to about -65°C (-85°F) in the austral winter (June to September) and in the Arctic hover around -43°C (-45°F) in the boreal winter (December to March).

This means that as long as you’ve dressed accordingly – yes to the down jacket, no to the fishnet stockings – you’ll not only survive a reasonable span of time in Earth’s polar weather, but you’ll be quite comfortable while you count penguins.

For this reason, many of our passengers are surprised at how warm it is in both the Arctic and Antarctic during our regular summer voyages.

Polar Mars, however, sees fewer travelers. And for good reason.

Over there, Antarctica’s winter temperatures would seem positively tropical, better suited for swimming gear than a fur-lined jacket.

This is because polar Mars can drop to a bone-shattering -150°C (-238°F).

Your freezer is probably around -18°C (0°F), to put that in perspective. (So you should probably rethink where you store your casseroles.)

And to further illustrate the difference, the lowest ground temperature yet recorded on Earth was only -89.2°C (-128.6°F) at Vostok Station, Antarctica, on July 21, 1983.

Maybe not what you’d expect from the Red Planet, but appearances can be deceiving even among heavenly bodies.

Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum) [CC BY-SA 3.0-igo (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0-igo) 

Ice composition: water only vs. mostly water

What would a polar region be without ice? Like everywhere else, probably.

Indeed, frozen water (in the form of snow, glaciers, icebergs) is the most recognizable feature of the polar landscape. And it’s also the most similar on Mars.

Earth’s polar ice is entirely composed of water, not counting the tiny air bubbles locked inside, and this ice usually grows in the winter and shrinks in the summer.

The latter is true on Mars as well, though the composition is a little different.

Image by NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Mars’s polar ice is mostly made up water, but the rest is frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice. This forms a (relatively) thin outer layer to the water-based portion of the Martian ice caps.

But don’t go changing the venue of your Halloween party just yet: This dry ice is only about one meter (three feet) deep in the north and eight meters (26 feet) deep in the south.

If you’re repeating “only” with an air of incredulity, keep reading.

Image by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

The water ice underneath the dry ice is gargantuan by contrast, two km (1.2 miles) thick in the north and a respectable three km (1.7 miles) thick in the south.

This makes Antarctica the closest equivalent to Mars in terms of ice volume, since Antarctica’s sheets are between two and three km thick too.

Moreover, Antarctica’s Dry Valleys are known for being especially Martian. They’ve even been used as a testing ground for outposts someday meant for Mars.

Earth’s North Pole, on the other hand, is dissimilar from the Martian one in that it’s basically just shifting sheets of ice over a liquid ocean.

Mars has no liquid ocean, though there’s evidence it once did.

Nowadays, however, the water Mars may have had has long ago turned to ice, vapor, and small brines in the soil – a clean polar desert by any reckoning.

T.E. Lawrence would’ve felt right at home.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wildlife: Plentiful life vs. possible life

Earth’s polar regions are not only moderately cold and beautifully icy, they’re also filled with some of the most impressive, well-adapted, multi-faceted animals on the planet.

Consider the Arctic alone: Polar bears, Arctic foxes, musk oxen, walruses, seals, reindeer, multiple species of whale, and even more species of seabird are scattered across Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland, and Northern Norway.

The vast northern continents within the Arctic Circle provide for wildlife diversity beyond anything seen in Antarctica, making it obvious why so many animal lovers embark on Arctic cruises.

But does that mean Antarctica is barren by comparison?

Not at all, which is why so many people year after year whisk off on Antarctic voyages that emphasize not only the region’s immense glacial scenery, but also its beloved penguin colonies and whale-watching hotspots.

As for Mars… Well, the party’s either long since over or far from beginning.

There is as yet no concrete evidence of life on Mars. Even so, many scientists think there may be microbial life lurking beneath the surface of the icy Martian soil.

And until Elon Musk makes it possible, this is the only place even microbes could survive there.

Image by ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum) [CC BY-SA 3.0-igo (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0-igo) 

So should you visit Earth’s polar regions or Mars’s?

As always, it depends on what you’re looking for.

Is it an airless, probably lifeless, gamma-blasted wasteland of rust-red rock in which the low-pressure, low-oxygen environment would make a human without a space suit pass out after 10 seconds, suffer irreparable damage by 90 seconds, and go belly-up soon after?

Or is it experiencing peerless polar terrain, wildlife, and activities with a state-of-the-art polar cruise vessel, complete with expert expedition staff, a veteran crew, and fully stocked galley bar?

Life is full of choices.

Image by Kevin Gill from LA, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Title image by NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons ~ © NASA/JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons





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