MARS: ARCTICA AND THE NORTH SEA
by Chris Wayan, 2003
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Arctica is the inevitable name for the northern polar continent. About the size of Elysium (a bit larger than Greenland) it's entirely iced-over, except the end of Boone's Neck, the tongue almost touching the Nilo Coast of Araby (right). There's also open tundra on Lomonosov Island (big crater-island to lower right of the mainland). Lomonosov could be considered part of Arctica, since each winter an ice shelf links it firmly to the mainland, this can even last through some cool summers.
Like Earth's Antarctica, the region looks barren on the surface, but the seas around Arctica are full of life. The underside of the floating ice is green with algae and plankton, feeding everything from shrimp to whales. And over half the ice you see is thin and floating, not ice-capped land. My orbital camera, faced with dim light (barely half Earth sunlight's intensity to start with, and low-angle light even in Arctic summer) didn't cope well with the extreme contrast between ice-glare and dark water. Sorry! Still, if you look close you can see the difference; Arctica proper is leaf-shaped, like Greenland, but in this orientation it's sideways not vertical. Most of the upper half of the white mass is sea ice just a few feet thick.
The wedge-shaped frozen sound cutting into Arctica at the bottom is Chasma Boreale, though the name's deceptive. This isn't a classic Martian chasm of redrock cliffs, but a broad sound, frozen over, with rounded humping glacial walls. It narrows but gouges into the icecap nearly to the North Pole--and the occasional cracks and holes in the floating ice mean that life gets within a couple of hundred kilometers of the Pole! The biggest dead zone is the lobe of the icefield reaching toward Tharsis, on the left. While Arctica may look like our Antarctica, remember the scale: this ice dome is only a few hundred miles across. Arctica is small.
The triangular Northern Ocean--the only Martian body of water big enough to be called an ocean--is the climatic dynamo generating rain for this dry world. In the orbital photo, the three lobes are:
Raising the sea may have a price: it floods the land-bridge between Arabia and Arctica. With the strait open, a ring-current develops around the Pole, cutting off Arctica from warmth to the south. If the North Sea were broken up more, circular currents in the separate seas might be stronger, pulling more heat north, more rain south, along the shores of Arabia, Elysium, and Tharsis. But I can't be sure. This shallow Boone Strait freezes each winter--but to the bottom? Doubtful.
Either way, the ring-current is at least partly disrupted, and nowhere near as strong as Earth's Antarctic ring. All three lobes of the North Sea (Acidalia/Chryse, Arcadia/Amazonia, and Utopia/Isidis) will have substantial loops--like the Gulf Stream, if not all as strong. Nor will the winds off Arctica be as fierce as our Southern Hemisphere's notorious blusters; the icecap's too small.
Both loops and gentler winds are good for life. Not optimal--I'm not sure there is an optimal setting for a Martian sea level--but good enough.
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