Lori Fenton

Lori Fenton
Senior Research Scientist
Planetary Science
Major Awards: 

2005 NASA Fellowship for Early Career Researchers

Curriculum Vitae: 
Planetary Science
The field of science is full of researchers working to understand nature. There's no way to tell what will help humanity and the world in the years to come, but some of it certainly will. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy how neat (and pretty) it is.

Planetary scientist Dr. Lori Fenton joined the SETI Institute as a principal investigator in 2006, and was awarded NASA's Carl Sagan Fellowship for Early Career Researchers that same year. Lori's primary research interests include aeolian geomorphology (how wind shapes a planetary surface) on Venus, Earth, Mars, and Titan; recent and ongoing climate changes; and the mobility of wind-blown sand and dust. Her research makes use of many different types of information, including fieldwork on Earth, visible and thermal imagery from spacecraft, and wind predictions from atmospheric models such as the NASA Ames Mars Global Climate Model (Ames MGCM) and the Mars Regional Atmospheric Modeling System (MRAMS).

Lori's recent publications describe how dunes and dune fields record climate change on Mars, the first evidence for dune migration on another planet, how atmospheric models can be used to account for wind gustiness and its effects on sand movement, and how the alignment of dune patterns can be used to quantitatively constrain local wind patterns.

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Aeolian activity in the last 400 ka driven by insolation changes: Can global and mesoscale atmospheric modeling explain when and how Meridiani Planum ripples last migrated?

The climatic system of Mars, composed chiefly of the atmosphere and the uppermost meters of the planet's crust, is primarily driven by the absorption of shortwave solar radiation (and modulated by the emission of longwave radiation to space). The chief parameters which control the insolation over seasonal and longer intervals are the axial obliquity, the orbital eccentricity, and the season (Ls) of perihelion. Large variations in insolation can result from relatively modest changes in the values of one or more insolation parameter(s). Such significant insolation changes may translate into potentially large changes in atmospheric density and winds, two of the most important parameters for aeolian surface processes.

Unraveling the sedimentary history of gypsum sand in the northern polar sand seas of Mars

In 2005, a large quantity of the mineral gypsum was unexpectedly identified in the high latitude dune sands of Olympia Undae. Because gypsum is formed in the presence of liquid water, the discovery of this extensive deposit has important implications for the climatic and sedimentary history of the currently cold and dry north polar region of Mars. Indeed, the presence of this mineral within Amazonian strata (< ~3.5 Ga) could have global implications, because it contradicts the current view that sulfate minerals only formed in abundance on Mars much earlier in the planet's history, during the Hesperian (or Theiikian) Epoch (> ~3.5 Ga). Images from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) indicate that gypsum sand grains appear to concentrate at dune crests, but it is not known whether aeolian processes alone could be responsible for this effect, nor what the significance of this pattern may be. Despite its potential importance in unraveling Mars' geological history, the origin of the gypsum and its role in sedimentary and polar processes is disputed and poorly constrained.

The Astrobiology Summer Science Experience for Teachers (ASSET) at the SETI Institute

We propose to continue the Astrobiology Summer Science Experience for Teachers (ASSET) at San Francisco State University, California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate National Park Crissy Field, and the SETI Institute. First held in 2004, ASSET is an on-going, exemplary professional development workshop aligned with NSES Professional Development, Content and Teaching Standards. It blends science content and pedagogy with leadership skills development. ASSET is 6 days of instruction and practice that parallel 6 astrobiology curriculum modules. The workshop offers 3 graduate science education credits (participants pay tuition), which requires the extended schedule. The ASSET workshop is intense and exciting, interactive and content rich, with presentations by leading astrobiology researchers from the SETI Institute, NASA, and the California Academy of Sciences.

Dune Morphology and Atmospheric Models: Implications for Present-Day Martian Aeolian Activity

It has long been unclear whether the many sand dune fields on Mars are actively evolving in the present climatic era. Recent evidence of sand avalanching and active sustained saltation has been identified in high resolution images. In particular, we report the first clear indications of ripple migration over dark dune slopes observed from orbit. We propose a comprehensive study that will specifically address this knowledge gap, via the careful analysis of high-resolution spacecraft imagery over the majority of the planet (between 60° N and 60° S). In fact, even the preliminary investigation of a small sampling of such imagery has already yielded evidence of recent sand avalanching on dark dune slip faces and the first clear indications of ripple migration (superposed on the dark dunes) observed from orbit. Such morphological indications provide unprecedented details of sustained saltation on Mars. This newly found activity refutes the commonly held belief that dunes on Mars are inactive in the present-day wind regime. Such a provocative topic deserves immediate, detailed study to determine how current dune activity provides unique ground truth for today's weather patterns on Mars.