Saturday, 30 November 2019

A Sapper’s War - 12 Fld Coy RCE History, Part 3 Dec 1943

A Sapper’s War - 12 Fld Coy RCE History, Part 3 Dec 1943 


A Note on Blog and Book 

This series of blogs, entitled "A Sapper's War" follows some units of the Royal Canadian Engineers in World War 2, primarily the 12th Field Company, which was my father's unit. The main sources are the unit War Diary, Daily Orders, official military histories, and The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers Volume 2.  I will also include some personal accounts of his, when this is appropriate to the history.

The blogs will mostly relate to their time in Italy, from Oct 1943 to Jan 1945, though it will ultimately be extended to the later events in Northwestern Europe and the earlier events in the U.K..  They will be put together in book form eventually, but until that time the blogs will be available for interested readers on this "Dodecahedron Books" blog site. I encourage anyone who in interested to read the blogs, and buy the book when it comes available. 
Naturally, I am claiming copyright, though you can make "fair use" of content, of course, if you are writing about similar times and events. 

Though the overall history of the war will be noted, as context, the text mainly relates to the experiences of the 12th Field Company, as indicated in their War Diary and related orders, and other documents.  If you want a more general history of the war, there are many other sources to more completely fill in those details.

There will be a fair bit of focus on what might be called "social history", in addition to the sometimes routine, sometimes harrowing military activities of a group of Allied sappers in the Italian Theatre of WW2.  The daily orders and company War Diary often provide an interesting window into this day-to-day world that the strictly military military lacks.  

Though this account is based on a Canadian engineer company, it is likely that British, other Commonwealth and American sappers would have lived through similar experiences at this time, so families and interested parties from those nations might also find it interesting. 

I will fill in links to the blog series below, as they are posted.

Dec 1943: TBA
Jan 1944: TBA 
Feb 1944: TBA 
Mar 1944: TBA 
Apr 1944: TBA 
May 1944: TBA 
Jun 1944: TBA 
Jul 1944: TBA
Aug 1944: TBA
Sep 1944: TBA
Oct 1944: TBA
Nov 1944: TBA
Dec 1944: TBA
Jan 1945: TBA  

December 1943


During December, the Canadian 1st Infantry Division was heavily engaged in the brutal Battle for Ortona, along the Adriatic, so it was no doubt a great concern that 1 Canadian Corps couldn’t help out in that endeavour.  The struggle for control of Ortona was a battle in which the Germans and Canadians fought over the small port city of Ortona, with each side taking many casualties.

Though some questioned its strategic value (though controlling a port is always useful), it took on a great political significance, being tagged by the media as “Little Stalingrad”.  The intense house to house fighting was reminiscent of that far larger battle in Russia, and it became an important symbol for the western Allies to show Stalin that they were in the fight.  Of interest from the engineering point of view was the development of the technique known as “mouse holing”, whereby Canadian engineers blown holes in the walls between buildings, allowing troops to slowly advance in that manner.

1 Canadian Corps didn’t make it to the Ortona area until most of the fighting was over, early in 1944.  During December 1943, the 12th Fld Coy worked primarily on the bridge crossing of the Simeto River, near Adrano on the island of Sicily.  They also did some work on a Canadian Military Hospital on Sicily.  Though these actions weren’t as dramatic as the Ortona battle, improving the lines of communication and supply in Sicily and on the Italian mainland was of no small importance.  After all, it is said that victory is very much dependent on superior logistics and administration.  And the value of a hospital goes without saying in wartime.

As noted previously, the units in Operation Timberwolf didn’t have the option of bringing much of their Canadian equipment to the Mediterranean, so they were somewhat hampered by having to wait for later convoys and/or using British Eighth Army in-theatre equipment that had passed its best before date, from heavy usage in North Africa.  This also hampered their ability to join the fight, for some time after the November landing in Italy.

12 Field Company War Diary, December 1943

Following is a condensation of the War Diary notes for December 1943.  

Dec 1 to 3 – Adrano, Sicily

To begin December, the company fixed up its new quarters, making them livable as “They were filthy”.  The area was in a basin between two mountain ranges, so it was warm during the day but cold at night.
The river crossing job had been changed from a bridge to concrete ford. It was expected that the job would take a fortnight, as there were difficulties with supplies and tools for the job, so the going would be slow.  It was pick and shovel stuff to begin with.

Dec 4 to 6 – Adrano, Sicily

The company began receiving some equipment now, including dump trucks and a D4 tractor. But heavy rain began to fall, and the river began to rise precipitously, by four feet in one day.  Soon, the river was raging, and a truck was lost in it, as the banks became extremely slippery.  It was pulled it out with the D4 cat, but it took some rough handling in the process.

Most of the river crossings were flooded out and carried away by the current, so the unit was now effectively cut off from the rest of Sicily by the river.  The rivers were now torrents, 6 to 7 feet above their level of just a few days earlier.  The only way to bring in rations was a stone bridge several miles away, which was only approachable by mule tracks.  Since the company didn’t have mules, they were forced to manhandle the supplies they needed.

Dec 7 to 9 – Adrano, Sicily

Attempts were made to put a line across the river, but the rope broke.  Fortunately the rain stopped and the river now began to fall, so sappers could cross by wading to re-supply, but it was “no picnic”, due to the freezing water.
Since the river was lower, work on the river ford could go forth again. That included pouring concrete for the abutment and working on some makeshift break waters and culverts.  The Quarter Master had gone missing, probably due to truck trouble.  This was a concern.

Dec 10 to 12 – Adrano, Sicily

The Quarter Master returned safely from Syracuse, bearing news that the  lost 3rd platoon, who had been working on a hospital in Syracuse, had been located.  Unfortunately, they had had a spot of trouble with lice, and needed to be thoroughly disinfected (as did their clothes). They were still working on Canadian hospital there, which was expected to take a few more days. As it turned out, they had also sustained a lot of minor injuries and ailments during this time.
The rains resumed, but the Simeto River work continued, and the ford was still standing.  Work on the abutment continued, though the quality of the concrete was not great, due to a lack of good sand and gravel.  An abandoned German petrol truck had its tank cut off, which was then filled with stones to produce a makeshift breakwater.

Dec 13 to 16 – Adrano, Sicily

Work on the crossing continued, including finishing piers, positioning girders, decking and finishing up the final road approaches.  The bridge took its first traffic and everything held up.
There were rumours about a move to mainland, though there was no official word to that effect.  A sapper, Spr McKechnie was to be tried for A.W.L.. He seemed like a troublesome sort, as would be borne out in later months.

Dec 17 to 20 – Adrano, Sicily

The crossing and associated road work was nearly done.  It withstood considerable traffic, though there were some problems with the road surface, so some more effort was spent on improving the surface and sandbagging around the culverts was installed.  Corps Engineers visited and seemed happy with the bridge, though they recognized that culverts will have to be kept clear in heavy weather.  3 platoon moved on to Syracuse, to take over billets and start some road work there.

Dec 21 to 27 – Syracuse, Sicily

The rest of the company had now rejoined 3 Platoon, back at Syracuse.  3 platoon was working on a tramway (to transport stone to a rock crusher), while the others settled into their new billets.
 Christmas dinner and related libations went well.  Sergeants and officers served the sappers, with the War Diarist noting “It was an excellent meal and a very liquid time was enjoyed.”
After Boxing Day, the company got back to army business.  Among other activities, there were marches to the range and Tommy gun training.

Dec 28 to 31 – Syracuse, Sicily

3 Pl continued on works (tramway job), while the others trained.  However, a move to the mainland was imminent, so preparations for that were soon underway.


Department of Defence Historical Documents and Miscellaneous Sources

1 - Sexually Transmitted Diseases

“A report in December 1943, on the alarming incidence of this disease stated that the rate for V.D. among Cdns in Sicily is now 454 per thousand per year. Various attempts to meet this particular problem included abandoned plans for supervised brothels and a general educational policy with penalties for troops who could not prove that the elementary protection provided by V-packs and ‘blue light centres’ had been adopted. Placing the large cities 'out of bounds' normally led to excesses in the villages or among rural communities where adequate prophylactic stations could not be properly established.”

2 - Some representative early 1 Canadian Corps RCE action, though not the 12th Field Company

“The engineers of 5 Cdn Armd Div were called upon soon after their arrival. On 27 Nov, General Simonds was requested to make them available for operations with Eighth Army and agreed so long as it was assault work and not building behind the lines. This assurance was received.  The sappers under Lt-Col J.D. Christian, C.R.S., 5 Cdn Armd Div, moved forward and operated under command of Eighth Army but in support of and assisting the engineers of 2 N.Z. Div, who had been heavily engaged and had found it difficult to maintain the L. of C. The first job assigned to the Canadians was the improvement of a stretch of road from  Casalanguida (H4283) to the Sangro. This task was given to 1 Fld Sqn. 10 Fld Sqn was put to work on a high level bridge over the R. Aventino at map reference H300901; this they completed by 10 Dec - an achievement which won them praise from General Freyberg. On 9 Nov, I Tp of 1 Sqn came under command of 1 Cdn Armd Bde and operated with 12 Cdn Armd Regt, clearing mines under shell fire. The whole group was recalled to the command of 5 Cdn Armd Div at the end of  December and although not all of their tasks had been of an assault nature, they had operated under shell fire and mortar fire and during enemy air attacks, and had suffered several casualties, two of which were fatal.”


Other Notes and Observations from December 1943

Following are some selected quotes from the documents associated with the War Diaries:

1 - The Simeto River Crossing job:

Attached is a communication, thanking 12th Fld Coy for their work on the Simeto River job.  It emphasizes that improving transport and communications was an essential job, though not generally heroic or dramatic (though there were always accidents and mines to consider).
Dec 5, 1943
MESSAGE – This refers to our job on the SIMETO RIVER.
The Corps Commander has received from G.O.C. NO. 1 District, CMP, (SICILY) the following letter of appreciation for the able assistance furnished to the District by all ranks of HQ 1 Cdn Corps and Cdn Corps Troops:
Dear General,
I want to express my appreciation to you for the work which your troops are doing in helping us out in our various tasks here.  In all spheres we are receiving much able assistance from you and I can assure you that this is indeed very great help to our strained resources. In this extended warfare, on the lines of Communication one always has the feeling of living on a piece of elastic at full stretch: therefore it is indeed pleasant to find that the strain is a little relaxed by such a happy windfall that has been provided by you.
I hope that you will be good enough to let your troops know how much we are indebted to them for all their help.
J. Clark

2 - German Mines and Other Engineer Intelligence:

German mines would be a constant preoccupation for engineers, as would be the laying mines for allied troops.  There were a large variety of mines to be aware of, some of which were detectable by mine detectors and some of which were not.  Other enemy explosives, left by retreating troops or dropped by enemy aircraft could also be deadly.

The S Mine was also known at the Bouncing Betty, as it was launched about a meter into the air after being triggered, and sprayed shrapnel around.  It often maimed rather than killed, and the prospect of this device detonating at groin level was obviously rather terrifying to Allied infantry and sappers.  Some of the S Mines didn’t “bounce”, but rather exploded immediately, injuring feet and legs, as noted in the order below.  That sewed uncertainty, as well as fear.
Dec 10, 1943
1 Reports have been received of “S” mines which contain a detonator instead of the four second delay pellet, thus making the mine practically instantaneous.  The object of this has NOT been made clear.
2 Fifth Army now report that six dead bodies with their legs blown off have been found in the vicinity of mines of this type.
3 It appears that although the lethal range may not be so great, “S” mines with instantaneous fuses are the more deadly as they do not allow time or space for prostration.  They will probably be laid mixed with normal type.

Dec 28, 1943
It must be remembered that the sowing of “S” mines in craters and the laying of A/Tk mines on either side of diversions was carried on extensively by the enemy and extended considerably the time of making a good passage.

Dec 14, 1943
The Germans have a new type of A/Tk Mine made of aluminum, weighing approx. 7 lbs. (filling).  Total weight being of 14 lbs..  It has a body diameter of 11 ½ inches with a lid 12 inches in diameter.  This mine has three points of ignition under the lid.  Three DZ35 Push Igniters are used.  A pressure on one side of about 130 lbs. will ignite it or a central pressure of 390 lbs.. To neutralize, lift lid and insert a nail or safety pin(s) in the igniters. Mine detectors WILL pick this mine up.

Dec 22, 1944
In view of a recent accident involving the death of several officers and men whilst handling enemy ammunition, it is necessary to draw the attention of all ranks to GRO 506/43, which is reproduced hereunder.  This order will be republished in all unit orders forthwith.
1 NO enemy ammunition will be moved or handled until it has been examined by an I.O.O. who will, as the result of his examination, decide whether the ammunition will be destroyed in situ or wired off and indicated by warning notices pending further investigations, whether it is safe to move.  In the last case, a report will be rendered to his HQ, certifying that it is safe to move and under what conditions the movement will take place. Such movement may be authorized by the HQ receiving this certificate except as in para 2 below.  Only the above mentioned officer will examine, destroy, or certify enemy ammunition safe for movement.
2 No movement of enemy ammunition in bulk, by rail or ship, will be made without reference to AFHQ “Q” Maintenance, giving the following details: Type, Quantity, Number of packages and type of packages.  Group, which will also be marked on each package. Type of storage necessary.  Reason for proposed movement.
3 Enemy aircraft bombs will be moved only under supervision of RE Bomb Disposal Units, with any necessary technical assistance from the RAF. The OC Bomb Disposal Unit responsible for inspection will make the necessary certificate for movement as in para 1; par 2 also applies.
4 Enemy ammunition will not be stored nearer than one quarter of a mile from British ammunition and explosives.
5 All working parties of all Services, including dock labour, involved in the movement of enemy ammunition will be warned personally by a qualified officer on every occasion prior to handling enemy ammunition as to the precautions which must be observed during the movement, and such work will be supervised by qualified technical personnel.  Local native labour will NOT be utilized for handling enemy ammunition.

3 - The Problems of Troops and Alcohol:

Booze was always a problem.  That’s hardly a surprise – take an enormous number of young men, move them to a place far from home and family, train them to be aggressive, add in an extremely stressful situation (often life and death), and you are bound to get the desire to escape from it all with alcohol.  The fact that these Canadians had little experience of wine (vino) and couldn’t calibrate their consumption well, only added to the problem.
Dec 13, 1944
There have been recent incidents where members of the R.C.E. units have had too much to drink and have attacked the local inhabitants.  This behaviour disgraces the soldier’s unit and the whole Canadian Army and without fail other members of his unit suffer for his actions.
It only takes a couple of men to give a unit a bad name and this unit has a few of the type who if not controlled will undoubtedly cause trouble for this unit.
Last night recreational transport was run to ADRANO to see a show – some men took advantage of it to go on a spree and a disturbance was created.  By their actions the coy suffers by the cessation of any future recreational transport.  In future it is the responsibility of any N.C.O. or Spr. to place any other member of this unit who is creating a disturbance under close arrest and escort him home or hand him over to the M.P.s.  The culprit will immediately be court martialed and get the maximum punishment.

Dec 26, 1943
In future andy personnel of this unit discovered bringing bottles of wine into billets will be severely dealt with. Guard commanders will note this order and will be responsible for its observance.

4 - Relations with Italian Civilians:

The relations of Canadian troops with the Italian civilian population was also an issue.  It has to be kept in mind that the Allies were actually a conquering army, even if the Italian population had never been all that committed to Mussolini and his cause.  And among this population there were committed fascists, saboteurs, enemy agents, Italian nationalists, and people who just didn’t like having hundreds of thousands of young men from foreign lands invading their country.  So, things could get testy at times.
Dec 21, 1944
1 All personnel travelling either in convoy or in individual vehicles proceeding outside the village or town in which their billets are located, will carry personal arms and ammunition..

Dec 28, 1944
1 Regardless of what individual opinion there may be, there are terms governing the conduct of civilians of a country under occupation whereby the civilians are entitled to a normal life, and to go about their business unmolested.  Only under such special circumstances as may be required by definite military duties, has the individual soldeir any special rights in dealing with the civilian population. Redress of any complaints soldiers may have against civilians will be made through proper military channels.
2 Military operations are only one phase of the conquest of a nation.  Those who immediately follow the assualting troops must bey practicing the principles of democracy, set a very high example.
3 Offences against the civil population, more specially any offence involving the threat of or use of force of the threat of or use of arms (including knives and daggers), will be severtly dealt with.
4 Misconduct by soldiers towards the civilians is of direct assistance to the enemy and furnishes a fertile ground for enemy propoganda.  The Canadian is one of the best educated of soldiers fighting for the Allied Nations, and should readily sense the results of maltreatment of civilians.  Acts of violence toward the civilian population bring dishonour and discredit to Canada and the Allied Nations.

5 - The Things they Watched:

It is always interesting to see what movies the troops are being shown.  Besides its potential interest to movie buffs, it does give a sense of the cultural assumptions of the time.  Plus, the military would have been concerned with the potential effect on morale – should they show triumphant war movies, light escapist comedy, nostalgic romances, or something else?  Each would be expected to have a different effect on the men.
In this case, they are being given a chance to see one of the “Thin Man” series.  These were a series of husband and wife detective stories that became popular, involving comedy, action and romance.  I watched one of the early movies: William Powell and Myrna Loy had good screen chemistry, and there was a lot of witty banter in the films.  Lots of boozing, and jokes about boozing.  The dog Asta was 
also amusing.
Dec 11, 1943
There will be a show called “The Thin Man in South America” shown in Adrano at 1830 hrs, 12 Dec 43 (Sunday).  There will be transport provided.  (We hope).

Some Family Stories Related to December 1943 Events

Attitudes towards Italians and Germans

Martin and other veterans I met while hanging out at the Royal Canadian Legion with him, had a great respect for the qualities of the German soldier and a corresponding lack of respect for the Italian soldier.  The informal term for the Germans was "Jerry", whereas the Italians were referred to as "Eyeties".  In modern usage, the term "Eyetie" (and to a lesser extent "Jerry") may seem rather politically incorrect, but wartime is not particularly conducive of tolerance and understanding.

Martin was not impressed with Italian soldiering, as he was with the Germans.  He claimed that the Italians would sometimes send their livestock, or even the civilian women, ahead to determine if there were minefields.  This might just be the military equivalent of an urban legend (I can believe livestock, but not women), but who could possibly know, after all these years.

All that being said, Italian soldiers reportedly fought well in North Africa, while under Rommel’s command (the German general known as the Desert Fox).

Then, there were the Mafia in Sicily and southern Italy, whom he said would go whichever way the wind blew, and could not be trusted.  I believe he was impressed by the Italian partisans, however, who could be quite effective and deadly, especially by the time the war had moved up to Northern Italy.  By then, Italy was out of the war, and partisans were cooperating with the Allies, to kick the Germans out of the country.

It hardly seems surprising that many Italians were not enthusiastic soldiers, with their country stuck in an uncomfortable alliance with a great power, and with their own country very definitely being the junior partner of the alliance.  Many soldiers would have been reluctant draftees, anyway.

As for Italian civilians, for the most part, Italians weren’t that keen on Mussolini’s empire pretensions, though they did go along when things were going well.  A “new Roman Empire” was Mussolini’s fantasy.  It seems as if the Italian population “went along to get along”, but once the war turned against Italy, they turned against the war.


If you are interested in history and adventure (and you must be if you read this far), you may also be interested in reading about other aspects of adventure and travel, whether by foot, bike, truck or car.  So, why not consider reading a travel book, for only 99 cents on Amazon:

A Ride on the Kettle Valley Rail Trail

The Kettle Valley Rail Trail is one of the longest and most scenic biking and hiking trails in Canada. It covers a good stretch of the south-central interior of British Columbia, about 600 kilometers of scenic countryside. British Columbia is one of the most beautiful areas of Canada, which is itself a beautiful country, ideal for those who appreciate natural splendour and achievable adventure in the great outdoors.

The trail passes through a great variety of geographical and geological regions, from mountains to valleys, along scenic lakes and rivers, to dry near-desert condition grasslands. It often features towering canyons, spanned by a combination of high trestle bridges and long tunnels, as it passes through wild, unpopulated country. At other times, it remains quite low, in populated valleys, alongside spectacular water features such as beautiful Lake Okanagan, an area that is home to hundreds of vineyards, as well as other civilized comforts.

The trail is a nice test of one’s physical fitness, as well as one’s wits and adaptability, as much of it does travel through true wilderness. The views are spectacular, the wildlife is plentiful and the people are friendly. What more could one ask for?
What follows is a journal of two summers of adventure, biking most of the trail in the late 1990s. It is about 33,000 words in length (2 to 3 hours reading), and contains numerous photographs of the trail. There are also sections containing a brief history of the trail, geology, flora and fauna, and associated information.

After reading this account, you should have a good sense of whether the trail is right for you. If you do decide to ride the trail, it will be an experience you will never forget.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Curiosity’s Discovery of Unexpected Oxygen Events on Mars and Implications for Life

Curiosity’s Discovery of Unexpected Oxygen Events on Mars and Implications for Life

There is new paper out, with some interesting news about the Martian atmosphere, based on data taken by the Curiosity probe (Seasonal Variations in atmospheric composition as measured in Gale Crater, Mars.  Trainer, et al.  Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets).  The title is descriptive of the work, but under-emphasises what I think most people find exciting, which is unexpected and unexplained variations in the proportion of oxygen in the Martian atmosphere found by Curiosity, over about a 4 year period.

Background on Martian Seasons and the Martian Atmosphere

To help understand what is going on, we need to first look at some other graphs in the paper and talk about the seasons on Mars.

The graph above (Figure 1 in the paper) shows how atmospheric pressure changed during the Martian years for which Curiosity took readings.  You can see that it had peaks and troughs.  The biggest troughs were in Northern Summer/Southern Winter, when the pressure falls to about 7 millibars.  There were other troughs in Northern Winter/Southern Summer.
In both cases, the minima are caused by carbon dioxide (CO2) freezing into the polar ice cap in one or the other hemisphere.  The Northern Summer/Southern Winter minimum is lower because the Southern Polar Ice Cap is much larger than the Northern Polar icecap, indicating that more CO2 is absorbed at this time.  Basically, the southern winter is colder than the northern winter, due to the eccentricity of Mars’ orbit having it farther than the sun at that time than during the northern winter (the seasons are mostly caused by the planet’s axial tilt, of course).  Conversely, the maximum pressure is during the spring/fall periods, when the least amount of CO2 is locked up in the two icecaps.

The fact that it is CO2 that is being absorbed at the poles is indicated by the graph above (Figure 5 in the paper), which shows the percentage of the Martian atmosphere that is accounted for by CO2 during the various times of the year, as well as the pressure.  It is evident that when the pressure is lowest, the CO2 percentage is also lowest, indicating that it is CO2 that is being absorbed and emitted seasonally, which reduces the atmospheric pressure.  That’s because the other gases in the atmosphere don’t freeze out at Martian temperatures (Nitrogen, Argon, Oxygen) and are mainly inert (Nitrogen, Argon), so they are conserved throughout the year (except for oxygen, apparently).  By the way, these measurements come from SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars), which is based on mass spectrometry.

Of course, as the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere changes, and the amount of the other gases remains the same, their percentages will vary, being highest when the amount of CO2 is lowest, and lowest when the amount of CO2 is highest.  You can see that by comparing the above graphs (Figure 5 and Figure 7).

The Unexpected Variation of Oxygen Levels in the Martian Atmosphere

For me, the most interesting result of the paper is in the graph below (Figure 10 in the paper), which shows the percentage of Oxygen to Argon found in the atmosphere at Gale Crater, over four Martian years.  As you can see, during the first part of the year (0 to 180 degrees, corresponding to Northern Spring-Summer and Southern Fall-Winter), the proportion of Oxygen as compared to Argon is increasing - after that it falls off again.  This pattern appears in multiple years, though not at exactly the same levels.

Argon is an inert gas, and it remains a gas at Martian temperatures, so there is a steady stock of argon in the Martian atmosphere which is neither created, destroyed or absorbed.  Oxygen is obviously not inert (though it is expected to have a mean atmospheric lifetime of about ten years on Mars), and it also remains a gas at Martian temperatures.  So, clearly the amount of oxygen in the Martian atmosphere (at least at Gale Crater) varies over the year, in a quasi-periodic way, since the ratio of oxygen to argon is changing.  That implies that there is a source and sink for the oxygen, which cycles oxygen into and out of the atmosphere in a way that varies with the seasons on Mars.

To quote the paper:

“The SAM measurements of O2 in Gale crater do not show the annual stability or seasonal patterns that would be predicted based on the known sources and sinks in the atmosphere. As mentioned in §3.2.2, based on known sources and sinks O2 should show the same seasonal patterns and annual repeatability as Ar.”

 The authors calculate that the “unexpected seasonal increase” of oxygen amounts to about 400 parts per million or 10 to the 14th power oxygen molecules per cubic centimeter.  They reject the possibility that the oxygen is coming from breakdown of H2O or CO2 in the atmosphere, as the processes involved would be too slow (CO2) and/or there just isn’t enough of the required material (H2O).  Similarly, there don’t seem to be good candidates for atmospheric destruction  or sequestration of the surplus oxygen during the low seasonal periods.

That leads to speculations about some sort of surface processes, whereby oxygen is stored and released from a reservoir.  Superoxides, hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), ozone (O3), and perchlorates are some suggestions.  Again, though, the time scales for these processes seem far too long to be candidates for seasonal variation.  Also, surface temperatures on Mars are too low for these processes and the other reaction products that would be expected have not been seen.  So, it is a mystery.

There are some similarities between the seasonal oxygen variations and seasonal methane variations, but the correlations are not all that tight.  As they state: “with respect to O2 and CH4 on Mars, the observations to date are inconclusive as to whether there is a definitive correlation between the them.”
They also look at some other possible environmental correlations.  It does appear that there may be an inverse correlation between dust opacity and oxygen release.  Similarly for UV absorption and oxygen variations.

The paper sums it up thusly:

“Thus the observed O2 variability remains a mystery until further measurements, models, or experiments are able to identify likely mechanisms through which the O2 can vary on short timescales. It is hoped that hypotheses that may be testable with further in situ measurements by Curiosity arise while the mission is still operating in Gale Crater.”

Speculations on the Implications for Life

These are just some educated speculations:

  • Curiosity has also found unexpected releases of methane (plumes), which could be a product of living things (e.g. bacteria in the soil).
  • The Viking Labelled Release Experiment had results that could be explained by metabolic processes of living things (e.g. bacteria in the soil).
  • There appears to have been a combustion event during one of the other Curiosity experiments, while examining an ancient mudstone, so there appears to be some complicated organic chemistry compounds in the soil (kerogen like).
  • Now we have seen unexpected oxygen variation, which could be the product of life (e.g. photosynthesis on Earth releases oxygen).

It is interesting that a lot of findings are accumulating that we would be inclined to attribute to living things on the Earth.  The question becomes, at what point would the accumulated evidence on Mars tip the scales to favour the explanation for these findings as being the products of living things.  Just how much extraordinary evidence is needed to support an extraordinary hypothesis?  ?  I don’t claim to know, but it does make you wonder.


·       Nasa probes oxygen mystery on Mars
·       (Seasonal Variations in atmospheric composition as measured in Gale Crater, Mars.  Trainer, et al.  Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets). 
·       Independent confirmation of a methane spike on Mars and a source region east of Gale Crater, Nature Geoscience, Marco Giuranna, et al.  April 2019
·       Life on Mars?  American Scientist, March-April 2006

Some Related Blogs

Humanity Lights a Fire on Mars and the Implications for Life on Mars
Life on Mars, Hawaiian style

Curiosity’s New Discovery of Methane on Mars and Implications for Life


If you want to see an area that is remarkably evocative of the landscape of Mars, here on Earth, try Newfoundland’s Table Lands, as described in the book below (along with plenty of other interesting features of Newfoundland):

A Drive Across Newfoundland

Newfoundland, Canada’s most easterly province, is a region that is both fascinating in its unique culture and amazing in its vistas of stark beauty. The weather is often wild, with coastal regions known for steep cliffs and crashing waves (though tranquil beaches exist too). The inland areas are primarily Precambrian shield, dominated by forests, rivers, rock formations, and abundant wildlife. The province also features some of the Earth’s most remarkable geology, notably The Tablelands, where the mantle rocks of the Earth’s interior have been exposed at the surface, permitting one to explore an almost alien landscape, an opportunity available on only a few scattered regions of the planet.

The city of St. John’s is one of Canada’s most unique urban areas, with a population that maintains many old traditions and cultural aspects of the British Isles. That’s true of the rest of the province, as well, where the people are friendly and inclined to chat amiably with visitors. Plus, they talk with amusing accents and party hard, so what’s not to like?

This account focusses on a two-week road trip in October 2007, from St. John’s in the southeast, to L’Anse aux Meadows in the far northwest, the only known Viking settlement in North America. It also features a day hike visit to The Tablelands, a remarkable and majestic geological feature. Even those who don’t normally consider themselves very interested in geology will find themselves awe-struck by these other-worldly landscapes.


And now that you have read about some real cutting-edge science, you should think about reading some Science Fiction (because all work and no play can make you a dull person, or so they say). 

The Witches' Stones, Book 1 - Rescue from the Planet of the Amartos

Young Earth woman and spaceship mechanic, Sarah Mackenzie, has unwittingly triggered a vast source of energy, the Witches' Stones, via her psychic abilities, of which she was unaware. She becomes the focal point of a desperate contest between the authoritarian galactic power, known as The Organization, and the democratic Earth-based galactic power, known as The Terran Confederation. The Organization wants to capture her, and utilize her powers to create a super-weapon; the Terra Confederation wants to prevent that at all costs. The mysterious psychic aliens, the Witches of Kordea also become involved, as they see her as a possible threat, or a possible ally, for the safety of their own world.

A small but fast scout-ship, with its pilot and an agent of the Terra Confederation, Coryn Leigh, are sent to rescue her from a distant planet at the very edge of the galaxy, near space claimed by The Organization.  Battles, physical and mental, whirl around the young woman, as the agent and pilot strive at all costs to keep her from the clutches of the Organization.