If you are a Mars-head like I am, you spend a lot of time thinking about terraforming Ares (the greek name for Mars). That is, making a pretty cold, thin atmosphere into a thicker, balmier one and planting a bunch of palm trees and laying some shuffleboard courts down and then just waiting for the first shuttles carrying retirees from Phoenix. Lots of science fiction careers have been staked on realistic supposition about how such a process would enfold. For my money, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is the best. But I’m in Utah, not on Mars (though sometimes I wonder) and so I’m really interested in Aresforming…how can we make Utah more like Mars?
It’s not something I really want to do. I like Utah. It’s charming. The landscape is stunning, with the perfect mix of desolate wasteland and oasis to make you appreciate both. I like the people here. With everyone basically living on the edge of an ecological cliff, I find folks friendly and real-seeming. But as an intellectual exercise, imagining Aresforming Utah is useful. Utah is the closest thing we have to Mars in many ways, so it just takes a little imagination to bridge the gap and actually start to viscerally connect with that faraway world. The tourism board might take this up:
Utah–more worlds than you think!
This was the basis of the Evening Program I gave a few nights ago called “Red Rock, Red Planet: How we can understand Mars by looking around us”. I not only tried to help visitors to Capitol Reef National Park envision what walking on Mars would be like, I also outlined some of insights a deep study of red rock country has provided areologists, that is, people who study Mars.
This presentation was inspired and shaped by an excellent chapter in Tyler Nordgren’s Skys Above, Earth Below: A guide to astronomy in the national parks, in which he attempts a very similar trick. He draws examples from all over this region: I tried to stick to features evident in Capitol Reef.
I hope to do a full write up of this presentation over several blog posts because I think it’s really interesting stuff and I’d like visitors to Capitol Reef (and the other parks on the Colorado Plateau) to have access to it. But it’s a lot of information, so I’ll stick with my brief foray into Aresforming Utah.
I start with a typical scene of Capitol Reef:
How do we make this like Mars? Well, first, take away the water. What water, you say? Well, the water that makes all those little shrubs grow. The water that rained yesterday, that might rain tomorrow. Take away the water, and you take away the plants:
Do you know how long it took me to pull all those buggers out of the ground? And the fines I accumulated from the National Park Service. (If you didn’t know, it’s illegal to pull plants, collect rocks, or scribble your name onto rocks on National Park Service lands. So that’s my resource message: aresforming is best executed in photoshop!)
There’s another thing we have to take away. Maybe we should have started with this, because it’s one of the factors that likely has contributed to the lack of liquid water. Mars has a very, very thing atmosphere. To make Utah like Mars, we have to strip most of our comfortable blanket of atmosphere away. Take away most of the oxygen, most of the nitrogen; Mar’s ghost of an atmosphere is mostly made up of Carbon Dioxide. Mars has no discernible greenhouse effect, and it’s 50% farther away from the sun. It’s desert, but it’s cold. (But it’s a dry cold!) Spill a nalgene bottle of liquid water on the surface of Mars and it will first freeze, and then sublime away into the atmosphere. That means it will go directly from solid to gaseous phase. Poof, no water!
There also isn’t enough atmosphere on Mars to scatter blue light like on Earth, so goodbye blue skies. Mars does have lots of fine iron oxide dust (same thing that makes Red Rock Country red), and these fines get carried aloft by the weak winds. So Mars’ sky is kinda…pink. Or salmon. Or coral. On a more vibrant day, perhaps even Nantucket Red.
The lack of water and dearth of atmosphere means no thick, puffy cumulus clouds. Mars has clouds, sometimes, but they’re the wispy, high altitude, cirrus kind. So, here you go. Aresformation of Utah, phase three: Bullet the blue sky.
We’re almost there. We’ve got all these campers and other park visitors who are wondering where all the green and blue went, and before they start complaining that federal budget cuts for the Department of Interior have gone too far, we need to get them outfitted with spacesuits. Mars is not a place for sunbathing or taking in the fresh air. The thin atmosphere means very low pressure. Standing on the surface of mars is like standing 35 miles above sea level. Your skin would instantly bruise, and all over, from blood vessels that can’t maintain their structure. And then you’d asphyxiate…there’s very little oxygen on mars. So get your pressure suit on!
So we have successfully Aresformed Utah. There’s a few things left yet to do. For one, Mars’ gravity is about 1/3 that of Earth. So there will be an extra spring in your step, and your golf swing will improve rather dramatically. But reducing Utah’s gravity by 2/3 would take a rather more dramatic reduction of earth’s mass elsewhere, which would mean getting rid of a good chunk of the Non-Utah planet. Let’s end the mental exercise here…
Incidentally, that Aresnaut is a real person in a fake space suit, taken at Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station, not 50 miles from Capitol Reef. For more on that, read my older post, Nerds on Mars.