New Worlds: How water could have flowed on Mars

Bringing plants into offices can improve well-being and make people feel happier at work.

Tap water [illustrative] (photo credit: INIMAGE)
Tap water [illustrative]
(photo credit: INIMAGE)
A new model suggests volcanic activity during the distant past of the planet Mars spewed enough greenhouse gases about to warm the atmosphere and melt the ice. It manages to answer the question of why the planet’s cold, barren surface contains geological features that appear to have been formed by flowing water such as river valleys, lake basins and deltas. The model, which was recently published online in Nature Geoscience, suggests that sulfur spewed into the Martian atmosphere by ancient volcanoes could have periodically warmed the surface enough for the ice to melt and water to flow.
Indeed, the signs of flowing water have been a puzzle, as the latest generation of climate models portrays Mars as an eternally ice-cold planet with all of its water frozen solid, especially early in its history, when the sun was weaker than it is today. Today, most of that water is locked in the polar caps.
Drs. Itay Halevy of the Weizmann Institute’s Earth and Planetary Science Department and James Head III of Brown University in Rhode Island thought the answer might lie in the now dormant volcanoes on the planet’s surface, which could have played a larger role than thought in shaping its climate.
On Earth, volcanic emissions – sulfur compounds and ash – tend to cool the climate. But in the presumably dusty early Martian atmosphere, the net effects might have been different. To understand their impact, Halevy and Head first calculated the size of ancient volcanic eruptions based on the volcanic rock formations observed on the planetary surface today. Their estimations show that the eruptions were violent – hundreds of times the force of the average eruption on Earth – and may have lasted up to a decade. This means that the amounts of gases that spewed out of the mouths of these volcanoes, from what we know of Earthly eruptions, must have been huge.
The team’s simulations showed large amounts of the greenhouse gas sulfur dioxide mixing into the atmosphere.
But warming by the sulfur dioxide was thought to be outweighed by cooling due to the creation of sun-blocking sulfuric acid particles, which form as the sulfur dioxide reacts in the atmosphere. Halevy and Head showed that in an atmosphere already as dusty as that of Mars, the sulfuric acid mostly forms thin coatings around particles of mineral dust and volcanic ash, subduing the added cooling. The net effect, according to the model the scientists created, was modest warming – just enough to allow water to flow at low latitudes on either side of the planet’s equator.
Liquid water may have flowed in these regions for tens to hundreds of years during and immediately after volcanic eruptions. The model suggests that during these brief, but intense wet periods, the surface of the planet could have been carved by flowing rivers and streams.
“Green” offices with plants make staff happier and more productive than stark designs stripped of greenery, according to new European research shows. In the first field study of its kind, published today, researchers found enriching a “lean” office with plants could increase productivity by 15 percent. The team examined the impact of “lean” and “green” offices on staff’s perceptions of air quality, concentration and workplace satisfaction, and they monitored productivity levels over subsequent months in two large commercial offices in the UK and The Netherlands.
Lead researcher Marlon Nieuwenhuis from Cardiff University’s school of psychology said: “Our research suggests that investing in landscaping the office with plants will pay off through an increase in office workers’ quality of life and productivity. Although previous lab research pointed in this direction, our research is, to our knowledge, the first to examine this in real offices – showing benefits over the long term. It directly challenges the widely accepted business philosophy that a lean office with clean desks is more productive.”
They showed plants in the office significantly increased workplace satisfaction, self-reported levels of concentration and perceived air quality. Analyses into the reasons why plants are beneficial suggests that a green office increases employees’ work engagement by making them more physically, cognitively and emotionally involved in their work.
Kenneth Freeman, innovation director at an interior landscaping company that was involved in the study, said: “We know from previous studies that plants can lower physiological stress, increase attention span and improve well-being. But this is the first long-term experiment carried out in a real-life situation which shows that bringing plants into offices can improve well-being and make people feel happier at work. Businesses should rethink their lean processes, not only for the health of the employees, but for the financial health of the organization.”