Almost all water on Mars today exists as ice, though it also exists in small quantities as vapor in the atmosphere, and occasionally as low-volume liquid brines in shallow Martian soil. The only place where water ice is visible at the surface is at the north polar ice cap. Abundant water ice is also present beneath the permanent carbon dioxide ice cap at the Martian south pole and in the shallow subsurface at more temperate conditions. More than five million cubic kilometers of ice have been identified at or near the surface of modern Mars, enough to cover the whole planet to a depth of 35 meters (115 ft). Even more ice is likely to be locked away in the deep subsurface.
Some liquid water may occur transiently on the Martian surface today, but limited to traces of dissolved moisture from the atmosphere and thin films, which are challenging environments for known life. No large standing bodies of liquid water exist on the planet's surface, because the atmospheric pressure there averages just 600 pascals (0.087 psi) – about 0.6% of Earth's mean sea level pressure – leading to either rapid evaporation (sublimation) or rapid freezing. Before about 3.8 billion years ago, Mars may have had a denser atmosphere and higher surface temperatures, allowing vast amounts of liquid water on the surface, possibly including a large ocean that may have covered one-third of the planet. Water has also apparently flowed across the surface for short periods at various intervals more recently in Mars' history. On December 9, 2013, NASA reported that, based on evidence from the Curiosity rover studying Aeolis Palus, Gale Crater contained an ancient freshwater lake that could have been a hospitable environment for microbial life.
Although the surface of Mars was periodically wet and could have been hospitable to microbial life billions of years ago, the current environment at the surface is dry and subfreezing, probably presenting an insurmountable obstacle for living organisms. In addition, Mars lacks a thick atmosphere, ozone layer, and magnetic field, allowing solar and cosmic radiation to strike the surface unimpeded. The damaging effects of ionizing radiation on cellular structure is another one of the prime limiting factors on the survival of life on the surface. Therefore, the best potential locations for discovering life on Mars may be in subsurface environments. On November 22, 2016, NASA reported finding a large amount of underground ice on Mars; the volume of water detected is equivalent to the volume of water in Lake Superior. In July 2018, Italian scientists reported the discovery of a subglacial lake on Mars, 1.5 km (0.93 mi) below the southern polar ice cap, and extending sideways about 20 km (12 mi), the first known stable body of water on the planet.
The notion of water on Mars preceded the space age by hundreds of years. Early telescopic observers correctly assumed that the white polar caps and clouds were indications of water's presence. These observations, coupled with the fact that Mars has a 24-hour day, led astronomer William Herschel to declare in 1784 that Mars probably offered its inhabitants "a situation in many respects similar to ours."
By the start of the 20th century, most astronomers recognized that Mars was far colder and drier than Earth. The presence of oceans was no longer accepted, so the paradigm changed to an image of Mars as a "dying" planet with only a meager amount of water. The dark areas, which could be seen to change seasonally, were then thought to be tracts of vegetation. The man most responsible for popularizing this view of Mars was Percival Lowell (1855–1916), who imagined a race of Martians constructing a network of canals to bring water from the poles to the inhabitants at the equator. Although generating tremendous public enthusiasm, Lowell's ideas were rejected by most astronomers. The majority view of the scientific establishment at the time is probably best summarized by English astronomer Edward Walter Maunder (1851–1928) who compared the climate of Mars to conditions atop a twenty-thousand-foot peak on an arctic island where only lichen might be expected to survive.
In the meantime, many astronomers were refining the tool of planetary spectroscopy in hope of determining the composition of the Martian atmosphere. Between 1925 and 1943, Walter Adams and Theodore Dunham at the Mount Wilson Observatory tried to identify oxygen and water vapor in the Martian atmosphere, with generally negative results. The only component of the Martian atmosphere known for certain was carbon dioxide (CO2) identified spectroscopically by Gerard Kuiper in 1947. Water vapor was not unequivocally detected on Mars until 1963.
Mariner 4 acquired this image showing a barren planet (1965)
The composition of the polar caps, assumed to be water ice since the time of Cassini (1666), was questioned by a few scientists in the late 1800s who favored CO2 ice, because of the planet's overall low temperature and apparent lack of appreciable water. This hypothesis was confirmed theoretically by Robert Leighton and Bruce Murray in 1966. Today it is known that the winter caps at both poles are primarily composed of CO2 ice, but that a permanent (or perennial) cap of water ice remains during the summer at the northern pole. At the southern pole, a small cap of CO2 ice remains during summer, but this cap too is underlain by water ice.
The final piece of the Martian climate puzzle was provided by Mariner 4 in 1965. Grainy television pictures from the spacecraft showed a surface dominated by impact craters, which implied that the surface was very old and had not experienced the level of erosion and tectonic activity seen on Earth. Little erosion meant that liquid water had probably not played a large role in the planet's geomorphology for billions of years. Furthermore, the variations in the radio signal from the spacecraft as it passed behind the planet allowed scientists to calculate the density of the atmosphere. The results showed an atmospheric pressure less than 1% of Earth's at sea level, effectively precluding the existence of liquid water, which would rapidly boil or freeze at such low pressures. Thus, a vision of Mars was born of a world much like the Moon, but with just a wisp of an atmosphere to blow the dust around. This view of Mars would last nearly another decade until Mariner 9 showed a much more dynamic Mars with hints that the planet’s past environment was more clement than the present one.
For many years it was thought that the observed remains of floods were caused by the release of water from a global water table, but research published in 2015 reveals regional deposits of sediment and ice emplaced 450 million years earlier to be the source. "Deposition of sediment from rivers and glacial melt filled giant canyons beneath primordial ocean contained within the planet's northern lowlands. It was the water preserved in these canyon sediments that was later released as great floods, the effects of which can be seen today."