Lessons from Martian Climate Change


Water flows on Mars, NASA announced September 28. “Using an imaging spectrometer on [the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter], researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes,” NASA reports. I first heard about this surface water from an August 19 video from Comic-Con (see minute 9:40), in which NASA representatives discuss Mars and The Martian film; some evidence for this water has been around for several years.

This is huge news with respect to potential human missions to Mars as well as to the potential for discovering life on Mars.

But how did Mars get so dry in the first place, and what does that phenomenon teach us about Earth?

I was somewhat amused to read the following Tweet: “‘Mars suffered climate change and lost its surface water.’ There are words to scare the s**t out of all living humans.” I agree with that sentiment, but not for the reasons the Tweeter presumably had in mind.

What the Tweeter probably thought was something like this: “Mars experienced climate change that would have been catastrophic for any life present and that likely prevented new life from developing. Earth, too, is experiencing some climate change, largely because of human activity, and this could lead to catastrophic results such as we see on Mars.”

Obviously, such a take on Martian climate change is a little silly. Mars lost almost all of its greenhouse gasses; Earth is gaining greenhouse gases. (Due mostly to human activity, carbon dioxide has risen from around 300 parts per million of the atmosphere, or 0.03 percent of the atmosphere, to 400 parts per million, or 0.04 percent.) Outside the realm of pure fantasy, not even the most hysterically alarmist predictions about Earth’s climate change predict a future remotely as dire as what happened on Mars.

But the extreme changes on Mars do offer a warning to humans. We’ll come back to that.

First, let’s review in brief what happened on Mars. As the geography of Mars makes evident, water once flowed in great abundance on Mars. But then Mars lost most of its atmosphere and the oceans boiled away. Why? Apparently Mars just didn’t have enough mass to hang on to its air, especially given the violence of meteor impacts, and the atmosphere dissipated. (Another theory I’d heard, that Mars’s weak magnetic field allowed solar winds to blow off the atmosphere, appears not to be much of a factor.)

The main lesson of Martian climate change, then, is that for the most part the universe is extremely hostile to life, and even places most hospitable to life may not stay that way. If life evolved on Mars, it was either killed off or driven underground by purely natural causes.

The Earth is not magically immune from such potential natural catastrophes. Indeed, less-severe natural catastrophes, ranging from earthquakes to hurricanes to volcanic eruptions, happen fairly routinely. Asteroid collisions have dramatically impacted the evolution of life on Earth—and a sufficiently large asteroid could destroy all life on Earth. At one point, humanity “damn near went extinct” due to an ice age likely caused by a supervolcano.

The lesson I take from this is that, to ensure the survival and expansion of our species long-term, humans absolutely must colonize space—and Mars is a great place to begin.

Andy Weir, author of The Martian novel, shares this view:

I want us to have a self-sufficient, human population somewhere other than Earth, because, twenty-five years of being a computer programmer has taught me the value of backing things up. And, as long as our entire species is on one planet, we risk extinction. It’s not very likely, but it could happen. It could be plague, it could be a war, it could be a meteor strike or something like that. But, if we’re on two planets, it is practically impossible for us to die.

Similarly, in Welcome to Mars, Buzz Aldrin writes, “The pioneers who settle Mars will . . . ensure the long-term survival of life in our solar system. Earth faces challenges. If there were a disaster, Mars would give us a place to get resources or to make a new home” (p. 6).

Speaking of climate change, Aldrin has some intriguing ideas for pursuing human-made climate change on Mars:

Giant mirrors in orbit could direct . . . sunshine to heat Mars’s polar ice caps. A temperature increase of just a few degrees would thaw the carbon dioxide frozen there. . . . As the temperature rises, more carbon dioxide is released. . . . If the mirrors aren’t enough, we can knock an asteroid out of its orbit to slam into Mars. Some asteroids are rich in ammonia, another greenhouse gas. An impact would produce a lot more heat and carbon dioxide, too. Once it is warm enough for water on the surface, plants can grow. (pp. 88–89)

I’m not sure how well that would work long-term, especially given Mars’s apparent difficulty keeping its atmosphere. But, one way or another, humans can make Mars hospitable to life.

Sure, human activity brings with it certain risks, harms, and trade-offs. But these risks are nothing compared to the risks of humans not acting to expand and improve human life on Earth and, eventually, beyond.


The Martian Presents a Hopeful Future for Humanity

The Martian is a tense action-drama focusing on the efforts of astronaut Mark Watney to stay alive on Mars after he is left behind in the course of a near-future mission.

The Martian Film

Readers of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian (which I reviewed for Objective Standard) knew that the science presented in the film would be highly realistic. (The major exception is the opening dust storm, which, as Weir has granted, is much more powerful than is possible in Mars’s thin air; Weir strayed from the science here for dramatic effect.)

We knew that the story would be a tense action-drama focusing on the efforts of astronaut Mark Watney to stay alive on Mars after he is left behind in the course of a near-future mission.

We also knew that the characters, particularly Watney, would be colorful and engaging.

What I did not know is whether the film would be very good. On one hand, it’s directed by Ridley Scott, and it stars Matt Damon and a superb supporting cast, so what could go wrong? On the other hand, lines such as Watney’s remark, “I’m going to have to science the s**t out of this” (added by screenwriter Drew Goddard, not Weir), could have come across as hokey in less talented hands. Was this film going to bring Weir’s enthralling tale fully to life or paint it by numbers?

I loved it. The film version of The Martian surpassed my hopes, which started out pretty high. I had been excited about the film since I first heard about it after reading the novel. In some ways, the film improves on the novel, as with its better-developed ending.

True, after an intense opening sequence, the film progresses a little slowly. But it builds steam as it develops its characters and reveals the enormity of the challenges that Watney faces. This is not your typical high-explosion, constant-motion (but ultimately meaningless) action flick; it is a story that is both exciting and deeply human.

Matt Damon is excellent. He nails the intensely emotional scenes as well as the funny ones. All of the lines, many of which a lesser actor would have bungled, come across as authentic and in-character—even the pirate jokes.

Among the supporting cast, standouts include Jessica Chastain as the mission commander who plays a pivotal role in the rescue effort; the always-outstanding Chiwetel Ejiofor as a NASA official; Mackenzie Davis as a young NASA satellite operative who first discovers Watney is still alive; and Donald Glover as an innovative astrophysicist who hatches a plan to bring Watney home.

Also, Sean Bean has a nice role as the earth-stationed flight commander—and he doesn’t even die!

Both the Martian landscapes and the scenes in space are gorgeous. Watching this film, it’s easy to imagine yourself on Mars.

I love Watney’s determination and his sense of humor under enormous pressure.  But mostly I love The Martian‘s glimpse into the future of space colonization that we humans are destined to have—if only we choose to strive for that future. This is probably the most enjoyable film I’ll watch this year—and it may the most important film of the era.


Buzz Aldrin’s Delightful Guide for Young Martians


It is entirely possible that my son will be among the first Martians. I was therefore delighted to pick up a copy of Buzz Aldrin’s new guide for young Earthlings who aspire to visit Mars someday, move there, or at least learn more about our neighbor in the solar system. Aldrin wrote the book—Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet, published this year by National Geographic Kids—with the help of physicist and children’s author Marianne J. Dyson.

Aldrin invites young readers to join him on a visionary journey to travel to Mars and help build the first colony there. Colonists first rocket to the red planet on a six-month journey.

Then the crew lands on the new world. Aldrin stirs the imagination:

The jets kicked up a cloud of dust just like on the moon, too. [Remember, Aldrin walked on the moon on the same trip as Neil Armstrong.) It settled down faster here because there is more gravity here than on the moon. But the real difference is the sky. On the moon, the sky was black, even in the daytime. Here, the rosy color is like the dawning of a new day. (p. 53)

Colonists join their associates who arrived earlier to set up camp, then set off to explore Mars to find an ideal place for a new home. Finally everyone settles in and contemplates plans for building larger living areas and, eventually, for terraforming the surface.

Welcome to Mars by Buzz AldrinAround this simply told story, Aldrin weaves substantial background information about the history of Martian study, the science of getting to Mars and eventually living there, and the nature of the planet itself.

Because of this material, Aldrin’s book makes an excellent primer for busy adults, too. One thing I learned about was the “Aldrin Cycler,” a specialized spaceship that permanently orbits around the sun, passing close both to Mars and to Earth. Aldrin’s idea is to hop aboard a Cycler, which passes by Earth every twenty-six months, to ferry people and supplies to Mars. Although I’m not convinced that a Cycler is necessarily the way to go for the first colonists to Mars—Robert Zubrin has other ideas—it seems like an obviously good idea at least in the long-term.

I especially enjoyed one of Aldrin’s historical tidbits. In 1966, Carl Sagan coauthored a book claiming (Aldrin summarizes) that Mars’s moons “Phobos and Deimos might be artificial satellites left from an extinct Martian civilization” (p. 36). Fantasies about advanced life on Mars have died hard—but reasonable hope that we may eventually find simple life there, or at least evidence of simple life from the past, remains.

On a few points, the book seems wildly unrealistic, as with its speculation that people might someday ski down Martian gullies (p. 59). Given Aldrin’s own description of the horrific death anyone would face on Mars without the benefit of protective habitats or suits (p. 74), I doubt anyone would risk a cracked helmet for a joyride.

I was disappointed that Aldrin pays so little attention to the possibility of nuclear power on Mars (he does mention it in a paragraph on p. 69) and so much attention to politically popular but less reliable solar and wind energies (pp. 64, 68). Aldrin emphasizes solar and wind even while discussing the facts that the sun shines less brightly on Mars, sunlight varies substantially by season, dust storms obscure the sun for weeks at a time, and the atmosphere is very thin on Mars (p. 68). Given the thin atmosphere and seasonality of storms, Aldrin’s suggestion for mountaintop wind turbines seems particularly ridiculous. By contrast, Aldrin’s suggestion for a geothermal plant is intriguing, and it seems to be much more realistic if suitable conditions can be found (p. 69).

Despite its very minor flaws, I greatly enjoyed reading through Aldrin’s book. I look forward to reading it to my son in the coming years. But suddenly I’m struck by the thought that, if my son does go to Mars someday, he might stay there forever. As sad as that would be, maybe it’s about time we said goodbye to humanity’s next wave of pioneers.


Zubrin Aims to Turn Waste Gas into Profits

Image: Mars Society
Image: Mars Society

Robert Zubrin—whom I’ve interviewed for the Objective Standard—runs Pioneer Energy out of Lakewood, Colorado. The Denver Post describes the “Mobile Alkane Gas Separator” Zubrin’s company is developing: “The unit captures the waste byproduct of drilling” and turns it into salable natural gas. Zubrin told the Post: “This is a significant step forward and a significant resource for America.” Soon “the first MAGS unit will be sent to North Dakota for full field operations,” the Post reports.

I really hope this pans out, not only so that Zubrin and his crew earn spectacular amounts of wealth, but so that I and millions of other people around the world can have access to the energy he hopes to provide.

Discovery of Parasitic Plant Control Mechanism May Lead to Better Containment

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons
A media release from Virginia Tech reveals a groundbreaking discovery about parasitic plants: They exchange RNA (mRNA, or “messenger” RNA) with their hosts to “communicate,” probably to control the way the host plant behaves. The release quotes Julie Scholes of the University of Sheffield: “Parasitic plants such as witchweed and broomrape are serious problems for legumes and other crops that help feed some of the poorest regions in Africa and elsewhere.” The new work could lead to better ways for humans to control parasitic plants. Biologist Jim Westwood states, “The beauty of this discovery is that this mRNA could be the Achilles hill for parasites.”

Out of Africa, but When?

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Writing for IO9, Annalee Newitz summarizes a recent discussion at New Scientist about when people first migrated out of Africa. Catherine Brahic writes:

A closer look at the genetics also suggests there was an earlier migration. Recently, Katerina Harvati of the University of Tubingen in Germany and her colleagues tested the classic “out of Africa at 60,000 years ago” story against the earlier-exodus idea. They plugged the genomes of indigenous populations from south-east Asia into a migration model. They found that the genetic data was best explained by an early exodus that left Africa around 130,000 years ago, taking a coastal route along the Arabian peninsula, India and into Australia, followed by a later wave along the classic route.

We’re all Africans ultimately; the question is how far back did our various ancestors leave Africa?

Snails Are a Thousand Times More Deadly than Sharks

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Conrad Hacket of the Pew Research Center published an informative graphic on Twitter about the relative deadliness of various animals (hat tip to Michael Shermer). Following is his list of beasties with the number of people they kill every year:

  • Sharks 10
  • Snails 10,000
  • Snakes 50,000
  • People 475,000
  • Mosquitos 725,000

The Weather Channel has out a lengthier list (again shown with annual number of human victims):

  • Sharks 10
  • Wolves 10
  • Lions 100
  • Elephants 100
  • Hippopotamus 500
  • Crocodiles 1,000
  • Tapeworms 2,000
  • Ascariasis Roundworms 2,500
  • Snails 10,000 (by causing the parasitic disease schistosomiasis)
  • Assassin Bugs 10,000
  • Tsetse Flies 10,000
  • Dogs 25,0000
  • Snakes 50,000
  • Humans 475,000
  • Mosquitos 725,000

So why do people obsess about sharks, and why have so many horror/suspense films been made about sharks? Where’s the “Shells” or “Trunks” film? The lesson here is that people’s fears often have little to do with objective risks.

On Blogging and the Information Explosion

Image: Opte Project
Image: Opte Project

What’s the point of creating Rational Beacon as another aggregator of news and views? In times past, the problem for readers was the paucity of information; today it is the hyperabundance of information. A chart illustrating “The Explosion of Digital Data” fundamentally altered my thinking about producing and consuming information in the digital age; see also “The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information.” In a world of hyperabundant information, writers can help readers by essentializing and condensing information and by filtering information. My hope is that Rational Beacon will effectively serve those functions for select readers. In brief, I spend a lot of time reading news and opinions so that you can spend a short amount of time doing so.

Films on Disk Might Survive (On Another Earth)

What is the future of movie rental?

My wife and I watched Another Earth this evening. I posted to Facebook: “Another Earth is basically a tragic drama set to a sci-fi premise. The premise of the drama is implausible; the premise of the sci-fi backdrop totally impossible. Still, we found the writing to be sharp, the acting to be fantastic, the directing to be interesting (though there’s too much zooming!), and the story to be engaging throughout.”

But my parenthetical comment about the business of movie rentals is perhaps more interesting: “Incidentally, Amazon has started running regular specials on streaming video rentals; I don’t see how disks can possibly survive more than a few more years.”

We rented Another Earth for 99 cents, and Amazon regularly puts movie rentals on sale for a buck or two. With online rentals at $3.99, I’ll make the trek to Red Box to rent a disk, even though that requires two trips (one to pick up, another to drop off). But as the price of online rentals drops, I just don’t see how movies on disk can survive, at least in the rental market. (There’s some advantage to buying disks if you want to own a copy, as a disk can be loaned or sold.)

What struck me was that I watched a science-fiction movie in a way that shows the real world rapidly progressing beyond the world envisioned in a lot of older science fiction. Who needs to contemplate another earth when we’ve got this one?