Photochemical instability of the ancient Martian atmosphere

Kevin Zahnle, Robert M. Haberle, David C. Catling, James F. Kasting

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92 Scopus citations


We develop a 1-D steady state photochemical model of the modern Martian atmosphere and apply it to possible Martian atmospheres present and past. A unique feature of our model is that the major current sink of oxygen is dry deposition (surface reactions) of highly reactive, oxidized molecules (chiefly H2O2), rather than oxygen escape to space. Another difference is that we allow hydrogen to escape to space at the diffusion limit, which gives H escape fluxes ∼70% higher than in other models. What results is a model with one free parameter: a dry deposition velocity to describe the surface sink of reactive molecules. An effective global average deposition velocity of 0.02 cm s-1 for H2O2 and O3 gives a good match to the observed abundances of O2, CO, and H2, the three abundant photochemical trace gases. We then apply our model to Martian atmospheres with different amounts of CO2, H2O, and solar forcing. We find that thick, cold, dry CO2 atmospheres are photochemically unstable with respect to conversion to CO. This may be pertinent to ancient Mars when the Sun was faint and O escape rates were likely high, for which the tipping point is computed to be ∼10 mbar of CO2. The possible photochemical instability of cold thick CO2 atmospheres, and the high likelihood that CO was abundant even if CO2 were stable, has broad implications for early Mars.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberE11004
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Planets
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 20 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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