Can trees grow on Mars? Scientists seek an answer by studying forests on a Mexican volcano
BY Catherine Bremer / July 16, 2007
Scientists are using the pine-forested slopes of a Mexican volcano as a test bed to see if trees could grow on a heated-up Mars, part of a vision of making the chilly and barren red planet habitable for humans one day. Planetary scientists at NASA and Mexican universities believe if they can warm Mars using heat-trapping gases, raise the air pressure and start photosynthesis, they could create an atmosphere that would support oxygen-breathing life forms. Getting trees growing would be a crucial step. The scientists’ quest has taken them to the snow-capped Pico de Orizaba – a dormant volcano and Mexico’s tallest mountain – to examine trees growing at a higher altitude than anywhere else on Earth. “It sounds like science fiction, but we think it’s feasible,” said research professor Rafael Navarro-Gonzalez, who has spent nine years examining Pico de Orizaba’s pine forests. “We have experienced warming our planet with greenhouse gases, but on Mars we could do it faster with more powerful gases,” he said in his lab at Mexico City’s UNAM university.
The first human mission to Mars is seen 10 to 15 years away, and the warming-up process could start 50 years later, NASA scientist Chris McKay said. There will also be ethical issues to overcome. Galaxies, supernovas and night clouds light up stunning imagery from the final frontier. “It’s playing gardener more than playing God, but the ethical questions are important,” McKay said. By pumping in highly insulating gases like methane or nitrous oxide, the scientists think they could heat Mars to 41 degrees Fahrenheit from minus 67 F now. That would match temperatures where trees grow at 13,780 feet on Pico de Orizaba. Having trees on Mars, as opposed to only simple plant forms like algae or lichens, would open the possibility of humans one day being able to breathe Martian air. The scientists are studying what makes trees refuse to grow above a certain point, where temperatures drop and the air becomes thinner, to see how easily they could grow on Mars. “Things don’t really start cooking from a biological point of view until trees start growing. Trees are the engines of the biosphere,” McKay said. “It’s possible Mars could have trees in 100 years. (But first) we need to understand what sets the tree line on Earth,” McKay said by telephone from NASA’s Ames center in California.
No calls to earthlings
Despite Mars’ lifeless rocky surface, burning ultra-violet radiation and its extremely thin, carbon dioxide-loaded air, humans have for long been obsessed with finding life there. Scientists believe Mars has ice at its polar caps that could melt into seas and that its subsoil contains the key elements needed for life. Even though none will live to see the fruit of their work, the scientists on the Pico de Orizaba project believe it would be fairly straightforward to pump greenhouse gases into Mars’ atmosphere, introduce bacteria to start photosynthesis and finally send up tree seeds with a human mission. “Nothing that we know rules it out. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, but nothing that’s a showstopper,” McKay said.
The project would be called off if life was found to already exist on Mars. “The idea is to explore the possibility of colonizing Mars. If there is life, we have no right to destroy it. But if Mars is barren we could take life from Earth to Mars,” said Navarro-Gonzalez, spinning a Mars globe that shows ravines 6 miles deep and dizzying 10 mile high mountains. His “before” and “after” images show the arid planet transformed into a new world of lush green plains, lakes and mineral-rich mountains that could one day supply earth. Still, that vision is centuries away. For now, anyone braving the six-month flight to Mars would have to live in a pressurized dome, suffer violent dust storms and be cut off from earthlings too far away to easily speak to.
Bacterial genes could put plants on Mars
BY Kelly Young / 14 October, 2005
Biologists have embarked on a project to engineer plants that could withstand the harsh environment of Mars, using genes from hardy bacteria that thrive around deep-sea vents on Earth. It is one of the schemes given further funding by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, which promotes futuristic ideas on the leading edge of innovation. Humans would need oxygen, food and some form of carbon dioxide removal system to live on Mars. In theory, this could be achieved using plants, and it would be less expensive than constructing habitats to simulate the Earth. But those plants would need to be able to cope with the stress of living in the extreme temperatures of Mars, and the planet’s higher radiation levels. So Wendy Boss and Amy Grunden at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, US, are examining whether plants could be altered by harnessing micro-organisms that live in extreme environments on Earth.
In plants, environmental stresses such as temperature extremes, drought or too much light, lead them to produce negatively charged oxygen molecules called superoxides. These are toxic and can harm the plant if they build up to a high level. All plants have ways to mop up with superoxides. But the researchers believe the methods used by “extremophiles”, such as a bacteria called Pyrococcus furiosus, may be even better. P. furiosus bacteria thrive near deep-sea vents, where very hot water jets out of the ocean floor. But they can also cope when they are driven into colder waters by ocean currents. This means that, unlike plants, their detoxification mechanism works over a huge temperature range, similar to that on Mars. “If we could introduce genes from extremophiles that would help get rid of reactive oxygen species, that would help prime the plant for dealing with extreme environmental conditions,” says Grunden.
At the moment, researchers have confined their work to cell cultures and have shown that when plant cells express the P. furiosus gene, they can withstand higher temperatures. They aim to move on to the arabidopsis plant and try out more genes from P. furiosus. They will also examine the potential of genes from a bacterium that prefers the Arctic chill. Ultimately they hope to produce genetically modified space crops. Four other concepts also received more NIAC funding in the latest round:
· A “star-shade” to enable a space telescope to see new worlds
· A deep-field infrared observatory to be sited near the Moon’s pole
· A laser-trapped mirror for a large space telescope
· Microbots for exploring other planets
A Red Planet Forever in the Orbit of Science and Dreams
BY Kim Stanley Robinson / March 13, 2004
Mars and science fiction came of age together in the 1890’s, and ever since they have had a tight relationship, a feedback loop that has made both famous. It began with the American astronomer Percival Lowell, who built a technically advanced telescope and through it saw straight lines on the surface of the red planet. He explained that these had to be the canals of an alien race whose planet was drying out, forcing them to convey water from the polar caps, also visible. Of course Lowell’s elaborately postulated Martian culture was a kind of self-hypnosis, in effect a science-fiction novel already. But his speculative leap from limited evidence was not that different in method from the archaeology of Schliemann at Troy, or Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos. And so his Mars was widely accepted as a possibility based on real data.
The news galvanized the world. Other writers immediately recognized that if there really were a civilization on Mars, it could be anything; Lowell’s version was only one guess. Quickly other Martian fictions appeared in all the leading industrial nations, and many had a major impact. In Germany Kurd Lasswitz’s “Two Planets” (1897) sold several hundred thousand copies, and clubs formed to discuss it. Lasswitz described a Martian technological utopia, enjoying great domestic comfort through advances in food production, transport, urban planning and space travel. Young men like Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley were greatly impressed, so much so that they later became rocket scientists. It could even be said that it was Lowell’s imagination that got us to the moon by 1969.
In Russia the book was “Red Star,” by Aleksandr Bogdanov. Here the utopia is political, though also technically advanced. Mars’s socialist civilization has been living in peace for five centuries, but when it sends emissaries to Earth, terrible problems arise. Can social progress be imposed on a less developed culture? This very impressive novel, written in 1908, considers this and other questions while offhandedly predicting much of 20th-century history. It, too, inspired clubs, debates, professional and amateur sequels, and a generation of young scientists, including engineers in the Soviet space program.
A decade earlier in England, H. G. Wells considered what might happen if this advanced Martian civilization decided to come here and take our water, which would be as valuable to Martians as oil is to us. Wells intended “War of the Worlds” to remind British readers of the recent massacre of the Tasmanian aborigines – while putting them at the wrong end of the gun. In the United States, on the other hand, the pulp-action adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter series abjured any heavy political message, except perhaps the idea that it would be fun to live in a fantasy Wild West forever, especially if you could leap much higher than the bad guys.
Thus from the turn of the 20th century through the 1920’s, many scientifically literate people considered a Martian civilization quite possible, and fiction speculating about it was widespread and influential. By the end of the 1930’s, however, the scientists were shaking their heads. Radio telescopes were revealing that the Martian atmosphere was extremely thin, and had neither oxygen nor water. Not only was civilization unlikely, but life itself looked as if it would have a hard time as well. And then Orson Welles’s radio dramatization of “War of the Worlds” scared people and was declared a hoax, and this somehow debunked the whole idea.
What came after could be called Mars’s dry era. Writers still wrote about the planet, and they still included aliens, but they were reduced by the new theory to postulating creatures like sentient tumbleweed or telepathic lichen beds. Arthur C. Clarke’s “Sands of Mars” is a good example of this, and Philip K. Dick’s “Martian Time-Slip” uses the desiccated Mars as another version of the 20th century’s spiritual wasteland. A different response to the dry Mars scenario appeared in Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles.” Bradbury grasped that although Lowell had been wrong, and that whole world had been lost, the stories it had generated would endure, so that whenever humans arrived on Mars, a ghost culture would already be there, ready to haunt them. This is a story that will always be true.
The Mariner and Viking missions in the 1960’s and 70’s gave us the actual place, all at once, fully photographed and mapped: its spectacular, gigantic landscape features were astonishing, like a dream of Monument Valley. There were clear signs of water, yet the landers indicated that the planet was entirely lifeless. Empty but real – what an opportunity. These very findings were also part of what stimulated planetary scientists like Carl Sagan to begin discussing terraforming: altering a planet until it could support an Earthlike biosphere. As these first terraforming theorists pointed out, Mars would be the perfect candidate for the process. We could start a new Earth.
A flood of Mars terraforming novels soon followed, mine among them. Combining Viking’s data with terraforming theory created an imaginative space as rich as that of Lowell’s Mars, or richer, because with the aliens finally gone, the story became so clearly about us. Humanity on a rocky planet, trying to tend a biosphere. It was not only possible but necessary to consider wilderness, sustainability, ecology, economics, social justice, utopia – in short, all the things novels should talk about, and all laid out with marvelous clarity on the clean slate of Mars. It was a lucky time to be writing science fiction.
Now some kind of post-Viking era in Mars thinking has already arrived, marked by the return of the possibility of life, this time in the form of bacteria underground. This possibility changes the terraforming proposal a great deal: bringing life to a dead rock is not the same as intruding on an already existing biosphere. Meanwhile, the feedback loop between science and science fiction continues to flow. It is, as we have seen, an elliptical loop, like the orbit of a comet. Science-fiction writers seize on new scientific findings and immediately leap to conclusions, in the form of stories. Then these stories dive into young minds and percolate there, shaping future scientists and giving them dreams, visions, plans.
Leap and percolate. These days I sometimes hear from young people who tell me they are studying some kind of science because of my Mars books. (“But you forgot to mention the math.”) I feel like part of the science-fiction loop. I still follow the latest Mars news, and sometimes I wonder what the next wave of Mars stories will be like. It seems awkward. I suppose the thing to do would be to tell the story of the robot rovers, because that’s what we’re going to have for a while. Maybe rovers much more powerful than Spirit and Opportunity – artificial intelligences, in fact, and happy to be on Mars, because it’s the world they were designed for, and they’re protecting an indigenous cryptoendolithic, or hidden in rock, bacterial culture they have discovered. So that when humans finally arrive in person, it’s a disaster in the making for all concerned, and the rover artificial intelligences and little red people have to play dumb and play ghost and change humanity for the good of all, and . . . On the stories will go.
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON INTERVIEW
Sci-Fi Author Kim Stanley Robinson Discusses Our Planet’s Future
BY Brandon Keim / 07.03.07
Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Kim Stanley Robinson
What better way to initiate the summer reading season than with a science-fiction trilogy on the potential horrors of global warming? The final installment of Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest series, which includes Forty Days of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting, came out in paperback in April. The novels rival his award-winning Mars trilogy in their vivid evocation of another world. But this time the world is Earth, dramatically but all-too-believably altered following sudden climate change. Sixty Days and Counting culminates Robinson’s most ecologically minded trilogy, and contains many provocative ideas for saving the Earth should glaciers suddenly begin melting. Wired News spoke with the author by phone about the potential real-life applications of his fantastic ideas regarding environmentalism, geo-engineering and our terrestrial future.
Wired News: You use the analogy of falling from a cliff when discussing humanity and climate change. Do you think coming changes will be so abrupt?
Kim Stanley Robinson: It’s not the best analogy. But when I’m in the Sierras, because of the way the glaciers carved the landscape, you come to points where it’s a difficult down-climb off a promontory to a better situation. That’s probably what history in the 21st century is going to be like. Many of the technologies we’ve invented are necessary to keep 6.5 billion people alive. We can’t go back from that, so we need to decarbonize really rapidly.
WN: One of the main characters in the new trilogy is Frank Vanderwal, a scientist who leads a radical National Science Foundation initiative to respond, immediately and on a planetary scale, to climate change. Vanderwal becomes heavily influenced by Buddhist thought, and his own lifestyle becomes a form of Freganism — living without a single permanent home, communing in a deeply spiritual way with nature, accepting change and valorizing adaptability, living off the excess of our own over-producing society. Do you feel this to be the ideal mentality and lifestyle for a time of radical climate change?
Robinson: He’s a character in a comedy who takes things too far. A lot of scientists act on their beliefs and so do things that look crazy to the rest of us. He’s basically following the right line — but without going homeless or moving into a treehouse, all of us can look at the way we live and adjust accordingly. That’s what novels are for in the utopian sense: to suggest modes of thought so you can examine your own life and see what you can do.
WN: Many of the solutions you propose in the trilogy involve some pretty radical geo-engineering — seeding the Atlantic Ocean with salt to restart the Gulf Stream, releasing a genetically modified lichen that enables trees to absorb more CO2 by growing to titanic sizes. Many people would be very unnerved by this approach, and worry that we could make things even worse for ourselves. What would you say to them?
Robinson: I’d be one of those people. We only have one planet to experiment with, and unexpected side effects and the consequences of these actions on a massive scale are so hard to predict. In the new trilogy, the big projects they do — particularly the release of the engineered lichen — are incredibly dangerous and unadvisable. What I wanted to suggest is that if things got desperate enough, there are governments that could decide to do things on their own and not wait for the rest of the world to approve. That could get bad. In terms of geo-engineering, there’s hardly a single project I think would be advisable. But if we fail to decarbonize, and it’s 5 or 7 degrees hotter in 2050, there will be scientists and engineers saying they can fix it all with a silver bullet. And then the idea will be on the table. If you pour salt in the North Atlantic because it’s gotten too fresh and stalled the Gulf Stream, as in my book, then you’re doing something relatively benign and un-dangerous. Salt would quickly diffuse; it wouldn’t change much in the environment. It would be an attempt at remediation.
WN: In the Mars trilogy, you focus a lot on scientific advances that allow people to live far longer than is currently possible, as well as the mental and spiritual consequences such extensions would have. In the latest trilogy, with humanity faced by an immediate threat to its collective survival, such person-oriented advances are absent. Does this reflect your thinking these days?
Robinson: I think we do see in the health sciences a most amazing potential for better health, resulting in longer, healthier lifetimes. The kind of sci-fi magic pill I described in Red Mars, where you instantly get longevity doubled, is not likely to happen — but the gradual increasing of healthy lifetimes is a clear possibility. That’s one of the ironies of our time: Right when we’re on the edge of serious improvements in health care, we’re also cooking the planet.
WN: One of the main characters in the Mars trilogy is Anne, who insists on maintaining the purity of Mars, free from human interference. You treat her sympathetically, even though she desires something that is impossible, given the scale of human planetary impact. Is sentiment such as Anne’s possible, or laudable, at this point in time on our own planet?
Robinson: I think it’s too pure, too caught up in a dichotomy of sacred and profane, where you call some things pure and sacrifice everything else to them. On Earth, I don’t think that works. I was really astounded by reading in Charles Mann’s 1491 of how completely the New World was a human landscape — that we’ve been terra-forming and gardening the planet for a lot of human history. Now we’re tremendously powerful at it, but we’ve always been powerful. Places you think of as virgin wilderness, these were humanized landscapes — parks, not wilderness. When we think of wilderness, we should think of it as a particular kind of park, where we minimize human impacts to see what happens. I believe in wilderness, but as a kind of ethical position rather than a natural state. We could develop everywhere, but I hope we choose not to, so as to create biodiversity and diversity for humans. I understand Anne’s feelings about Mars, but that same impulse on Earth rests on an improper comprehension of how humans interact with the earth. We should conceive of ourselves not as rulers of Earth, but as highly powerful, conscious stewards: The Earth is given to us in trust, and we can screw it up or make it work well and sustainably. Something I’ve been more and more aware of as we face the mass extinction that we’re about to start is that animals and landscapes need legal and philosophical representation as crucial parts of ourselves.
WN: How do you cultivate this sense in society if, for instance, you live in Brooklyn and the animals you see are rats and seagulls?
Robinson: I’d love those rats and seagulls as our horizontal brothers and sisters. That’s a truly depleted ecology at that point, but you want to encourage the feral cats and raccoons. Where I live, even though it’s a fully humanized little city, there’s a fair amount of species that get along as suburban creatures. Here in California, we too have killed the animals and destroyed their habitat — we need our industrial agriculture to change, to include travel zones, habitat zones, so that you can create a civilization coexisting in the same space with other animals.
WN: In the new trilogy, the U.S. government embarks on a New Deal-style initiative to prevent the climate from going more awry than it already has. Many people dream of this now — but in the books, it only happens when the United States experiences storms and weather patterns more catastrophic than ever seen before. Is that what it’ll take for us to engage climate change in a meaningful way?
Robinson: I hope not. That’s going to be too late. I’m hoping the scientific community continues to go off like a fire alarm in a hotel, just as they have for the last five years, and that that will do the trick. If they do, the democracies, the political leadership and even big business will all recognize that this is a real threat. And we’re seeing enough of the effects, even without catastrophic weather. Take glaciers, for example, which are melting so fast, and it turns out they are the source of water for one-third of the world’s population. Even India and China therefore have compelling reasons to get serious. Their own populations will be hammered by the loss of the Himalayan glaciers. So many effects are combining. I don’t think we need the kind of minus-50-degree winter I described in the books. Humanity is sane, and can make use of its intelligence. We have to act as if this is true. That’s the whole story of the 21st century: Are we a sane civilization or not?