Friday, December 11, 2015

Terraforming Mars

Here's a Q&A that has nothing to do with earthly geology, but may have some instructive content for future geologists. There is usually at least SOME science in SciFi novels!

Q: What would happen to the Martian atmosphere, over the course of the next 100 years, if we could build a machine on Mars that could output the equivalent quantity and composition of greenhouse gasses as are released on earth (approximately) every year?  Thanks for your time, hopefully this has not already been answered!  
- Kyle R

A: That's a rather unique question, but it begs several critical assumptions.

According to a recent Science article, Mars lost its original atmosphere billions of years ago because the planet lost (if it ever had) its magnetic field. As a result the solar wind (high energy charged particles blasted out from the Sun) stripped most of Mars' atmosphere away. So one assumption is that the planetary magnetic field is somehow restored.

Another assumption is a bit more obvious: where would the carbon and oxygen come from? Certainly not the planet's crust, as it has been degassing for billions of years and is a depleted desert now. Hundreds of trillions of tons of material would have to be brought to Mars' surface. This is actually not as unreasonable as it may sound: comets can do (and have done) this in the past... but it would require a number of pretty large comets. A colliding planetary body from the Oort Cloud on the scale of Sedna could bring the mass as well as restart the magnetic dynamo, however. A collision like that is thought to be the reason why we still have a magnetic field here on Earth... and a Moon as big as the one we have.

A final assumption is also necessary: a weaker planetary gravity field would make it easier for gases to escape the planet. So another assumption would be that somehow the planet became much more dense. A comet impact couldn't solve this one. A collision with something like Sedna would only marginally increase the gravity field of the planet. Weak gravity -> easier for atmospheric gases to escape.

I'm not a specialist in atmospheric dynamics, so I don't want to speculate what would happen if all three of these conditions were somehow met. I suspect that Mars' currently pink sky might end up a different color, however.

Q: Thanks for the thoughtful reply Jeff, I appreciate you taking the time.  The thrust behind my question was basically to get an understanding of the scale of the terraforming humans have engineered on Earth and what the impact would be if that same process was applied to another planet of similar size.  I guess looking back I should have simply asked what the impact might be of 'magically' pumping 7,000 million metric tons of  carbon dioxide into the Martian atmosphere every year (7000 million metric tons being an approximate average volume created by human factors on Earth).  Thanks again and enjoy your weekend!

A: Yes, I was fascinated by the book Dune and the movie Total Recall, but the physicist in me kept slapping me on the back of the head: There's no evidence of sequestered carbon on Mars except frozen CO2 at the poles. There is only rare (indirect) evidence of water - it's a desert world. Water being low density, it would be hard to hide it on a planet like Mars or Arrakis. THAT said, I participated in several expeditions across the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. Ambient humidity there is about 2% (in an Arizona summer it is around 20%). It is so dry that you have to "snuff" a handful of water every hour all night long because your mucous membranes are on fire - and cracking from the desiccation. However, I did some geo-electrical soundings along our two routes to the Wabar Impact site and found evidence of conductors - probably above-bedrock water - in several locations at about 60 - 100 meter depths.

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