7 Fascinating Facts About Martian Dust Devils

Martian dust devils were discovered in the late 1970s and can be a lot larger than the ones found on Earth.
Mars rover captures first ever sound of dust devil
Mars rover captures first ever sound of dust devil / Associated Press

While they sound like an awesome name for a new rock band, Martian dust devils have been intriguing astronomers and climatologists for decades. Here’s some amazing trivia about these red planet whirlwinds.  

Mars is covered in dust.

The amount of dust on Mars puts the nooks and crannies under your furniture to shame. Millions of years of weathering by strong, ceaseless winds eroded the Red Planet’s rocks and surface layers and created a coat of extremely fine dust particles—up to 10 times finer than baby powder. Without bodies of water to trap airborne particles, Mars’s dust continually drifts and swirls around in its thin atmosphere, and often twists into dust devils.

Martian dust devils can be much taller than their Earth-based counterparts.

For those unfamiliar with Earth-based dust devils, check out this footage taken in Ontario, Canada, back in 2007. This one’s actually on the smaller side, though.

On our own planet, dust devils are dust-filled whirlwinds that are created via strong surface heating. They can range from 10 to 300 feet in diameter and between 500 to 1000 feet in height. Dust devils are usually smaller and much less intense than tornadoes, and they also tend to form on clear days, after the ground has absorbed a lot of heat from the sun.

Like those on Earth, Martian dust devils form from solar energy. As warm air on the ground mixes with descending columns of cooler air, it creates an updraft and pulls dust into a vortex. But Martian dust devils are gigantic. NASA photographed one in 2012 after it reached the impressive stature of 12 miles tall. In addition to being much larger than Earth’s dust devils, the Martian versions are more likely to occur in Mars’s spring and summer seasons.

The first Martian dust devil photographs were taken in the 1970s.

Martian dust devils were discovered in the late 1970s. NASA’s Viking orbiters, launched in 1975 and 1976, captured an array of photographs of the mysterious planet, some of which showcased its awe-inspiring dust devils and confirmed their existence.

They create worm-like tracks on the surface of Mars.

The tracks left by Martian dust devils resemble dark squiggles and slashes on the planet’s surface. These filament-like lines are dark because dust devils blow away the lighter-toned soil that usually covers the basalt or lava bedrock, exposing the darker ground beneath. These tracks can linger for weeks or even months, depending on when new dust storms—or Martian dust devils—blow soil back over them.

Scientists have been honing their ability to predict these whirlwinds.

NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey are improving their capacity to anticipate dust devils, a key part of protecting future astronauts on the Red Planet.

While scientists don’t fully understand how Martian dust becomes airborne, they believe seasons can play a part. Most dust storms tend to coincide with the planet’s southern hemisphere summer. Winds may be stronger in certain areas of the planet at that time of year, but the region itself and the shape of the land may also be factors.

“We found that the places that had the strongest winds never retained enough dust to really produce a lot of dust storms,” Claire Newman, lead author of a 2022 study on Martian atmospheric dynamics, told Space.com. “But the places that produced an average amount of wind, there was dust coming and going from them, because it had enough time to get redeposited and then lifted up.”

Martian dust devils play a big role in how much dust spreads on the planet, however. “A local dust storm might raise much more dust than the dust devils and surface gust winds, but local dust storms are short-lived, while dust devils and surface gusts result in sustained dust content,” Ricardo Hueso, a physicist at the Universidad del País Vasco (UPV/EHU) and co-author of the study, told Space.com.

One of them inadvertently cleaned a NASA rover.

Launched in 2004, the Spirit rover’s solar panels were heavily coated with dust—depleting its power levels—when a passing dust devil removed the obstructive particles, giving it a badly needed energy boost.

Despite their size, Martian dust devils aren’t very powerful compared to those on our planet.

Earth’s dust devils have their Martian rivals beaten in at least one category, as ours can be far more destructive. Martian dust devils can reach speeds of between 45 to 55 mph [PDF], but due to the relative thinness of its atmosphere, they exert much less force than identical storms would on Earth.

A version of this story was originally published in 2014 and has been updated for 2024.

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