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When Viking I sent back the first images from Mars in 1976, the world was abuzz. And while most of the curiosity centered on the possibility of life on the red planet — and that mysterious mesa shaped like a human face — James Fastook was fascinated with something else entirely: ice.
Fastook was a year away from earning a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Maine, working in the lab of glaciologist Terence Hughes. Fastook’s specialty was — and continues to be — ice sheet modeling, and he hoped to apply his equations to Mars. But at the time, his model wasn’t sufficient.
In time, Fastook perfected what is now known as the University of Maine Ice Sheet Model, a multifaceted mathematical approach to ice sheet physics. Today, his work helps climate scientists gain a better understanding of the glaciological processes that have shaped both Earth and Mars.
The obvious question is, Why Mars? Well, Mars is the only other planet in our solar system that has glaciers. It also has moraines and eskers — the types of landscape features that result from glacier movement — so it serves as a means of comparison.
“One of the things you need to do to understand planetary physics is to look at more than one planet,” says Fastook, a UMaine professor in computer science with a cooperating appointment in the university’s Climate Change Institute. “If you only look at one planet, you only get part of the picture.”
Mars is significantly colder than Earth. And in many ways, the climate of Mars is much simpler than that of our planet. There’s no biology there to complicate things, no oceans, no plate tectonics. But the driving forces that affect the planets are similar: orbital changes that cause seasons. Sunlight. An atmosphere. Wind. Weather. Clouds. Snowfall. Maybe — a long, long time ago — rain.
“At the same time, the planets are different enough that it tests our understanding of the physical processes,” Fastook says.