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DEMAREST: Why we should migrate to Mars

Column: Kickin' it with Kenji

As our home planet quickly fills up, we may have to start looking to the rest of the solar system for planets to eventually call home.  – Photo by Pixy

It has always been the drive of humans to spread our existence to every corner of this blue and green ball that we call home. Our ancestors millions of years ago inhabited the savanna of East Africa, yet they sought out lands beyond their own home.

While this has been attributed to following game, climate change and fleeing from enemies, the departure is due in no small part to the curious and exploratory nature of humankind combined with our primal desire to survive and thrive.

Yet today, as we have come to inhabit every small corner of the globe, many are looking to the stars for our next destination. Much ado has been made on the subject of colonizing Mars as of late.

From the time of Ray Bradbury’s "The Martian Chronicles," the concept of humans one day inhabiting the red planet has been an exciting feature of science fiction. Fast forward to today, the prospect has grown closer and closer to reality with Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, developing the Starship rocket and planning to launch it on a mission to Mars, possibly as early as 2024. 

While such a massive fortune in a time and place in which rampant poverty and income inequality is such a widespread issue brings into question issues of Musk's personal character— that is an entirely different discussion for a different day. The fact remains that he is a forward-thinking man who is working to bring to life humanity's long-time vision of the conquest of space.

Whatever his motivations, I find his pursuit of exploration and eventual habitation of our neighbor in the solar system to be wise. "Colonization" gets a bad reputation, and rightfully so. It has stripped countless nations and peoples of their culture and dignity. But, in the context of our red barren neighbor planet, I think this is hardly an issue. As far as we know, it has no life, nor does it have the ability to sustain life.

By settling there, we would not be displacing any people or animals, aside from that which we might introduce. This migration would have nothing to do with conquest or spread of culture and everything to do with our survival as a species. It is no secret that we have utterly destroyed and taken advantage of the planet which we call home.

Since the mid-18th century, the industrial revolution and the burning of fossil fuels has brought about a massive increase in greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide, in the Earth’s atmosphere. I remember this phenomenon being referred to as “global warming” in my childhood, especially by former Vice President Al Gore in his documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

We all know it now by the more accurate, yet nebulous, designation of “climate change.” Its connotations may be more mysterious and, depending on your interpretation, more ominous, but even those who fully accept that it is true (which is sadly not 100 percent of the population) do not grasp the full extent of it. It is not simply a process which will bring about an eternal summer in the distant future.

Rather, it is a death knell for the planet and all of humankind. The warmer climate will allow the propagation of deadly tropical diseases. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) may have, unfortunately, been a small peek into what may come. The melting of permafrost ice sheets and glaciers will lead to a massive sea level rise, which will flood many low lying areas across the world, displacing millions of people and destroying their homes.

This melting also creates a feedback loop. Ice reflects sunlight back into space. Without this ice, more sunlight will remain on the Earth, which will melt the ice faster. Extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, droughts, cyclones and snowstorms will become more common, causing massive damage to property and people alike.

We witnessed this in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast. Forest dieback will cause many animals to lose their habitats and ultimately go extinct, not to mention destroying the massive oxygen-creating organisms that are the trees and foliage they harbor. In the oceans, coral bleaching and ocean acidification will prevent the smallest plankton from being able to survive, affecting the entire food chain.

A mass extinction event will occur, affecting everything alive on this planet today, including us. The scariest part about this reality is that much of this destruction is already happening, is irreversible, and is unlikely to be changed anytime soon. We have sown the seeds of death and destruction, and I grimace at the conflict and despair this will bring upon us in the remainder of this century.

The profit-driven incentive of offending industries has barely been blunted by any legal or ethical imperative to save our home, and the pushback against it, regardless of how noble it may be, is woefully impotent.

At the same time, the stripping of the Earth chugs on at an accelerated speed. I take no pleasure in saying that there is no hope of saving this planet. Instead, to ensure the survival of the human race, we must turn to the fourth planet in the solar system. We must make it our home.

The conditions for survival there will surely be much harder than anything anyone alive has ever faced. We are the product of billions of years of evolving and adapting to the conditions on this planet, as is every other life form we see today.

Simply uprooting and moving into an alien, inhospitable world with conditions entirely different from anything we are used to may seem like a futile attempt to overcome insurmountable odds. In my estimation, that is entirely accurate.

This will not be easy, but it is indeed necessary. In order to make the red planet our home, we will need to terraform it. In other words, we must make it similar to Earth. We must create an atmosphere of oxygen in order for us to breathe.

We must introduce a water cycle so that rain and snow will fall, giving life to the vegetation which we need to cover the planet and create oxygen. Most importantly of all, the planet has to have a climate warm enough for sustaining an ecosystem capable of supporting life. 

In complete contrast to our intuition about our current home planet, we must introduce greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Mars has an average surface temperature of -81 degrees Fahrenheit, which is comparable to the winter temperatures of our planet’s most uninhabitable continent, Antarctica.

The carbon dioxide emitting factories which have been killing the Earth will be vital to trapping warmth and sunlight onto this barren red ball. While the distance from the sun may resign the planet to being a bit chilly, I would prefer a wintery home to a summery grave. The waters of our world sustain all life, and we must replicate that on Mars too.

We know that Mars does have frozen water sequestered at its north and south poles. This is good news, as transporting water between planets is expensive and difficult. I could not imagine the logistical nightmare of importing enough to form an entire ocean worth of it.

Perhaps melting the ice caps is a viable way to wet the dry landscape. But, assuming that the logistics of this do prove the prospect to be viable, it may not be enough water to form a large enough body of water to support a whole ecosystem.

Much of the northern hemisphere of the planet is low-lying compared to the southern hemisphere, presumably making the land the perfect basin for an ocean. If the ice caps do not contain enough water to create this ocean, then the settlers must create a way to synthesize water on a massive scale. The red planet needs an atmosphere of breathable air. For that, we need organisms capable of photosynthesis.

Considering the planet’s distance from the sun, this process may be much more difficult to complete. Like water, the synthesis of oxygen might need to be supplemented with artificial means. Eventually, the vegetation will grow to a point at which it is capable of sustaining an atmosphere. At that time, we will have entire forests and fields of lush green. Imitating the systems which maintain the Earth is no easy task.

We have a very comprehensive understanding of how our planet works, yet we have never undertaken the gargantuan task of copying those systems and creating them from scratch on a barren canvas of a planet. “Mars Makeover” is not simply a vanity project, but the greatest migration we will ever see and a true safe haven for the human race to start over. Let us turn the red waste into a blue and green paradise. Kenji Demarest is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in history and political science and minoring in South Asian studies. His column, "Kickin' it Back with Kenji," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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