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written by Alex Moore on December 13, 2000 | author profile | forum profile | contact me
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The Rolling Hills of the Terra
The Rolling Hills of the Terra
Credit: James Graham and Kandis Elliot
The Earth's atmosphere is made up of 77% Nitrogen, 22% Oxygen, and less than 1% carbon dioxide. With an average temperature of well above freezing and an atmospheric pressure of an ideal 1013 millibars at sea level, our planet serves as the perfect model for the conditions required for human beings. But the Red Planet is not so generous.

Margarita Marinova, a research assistant at MIT, has an idea that could change the face of Mars forever. She claims that one-hundred factories on the Martian surface, constantly releasing large amounts of PFCs, or super-greenhouse gases, would lead to an increase in temperature similar the climate of Canada's. She claims that in 60 years these PFCs could do the trick.

But what do these "super-greenhouse gases" contain? The "Russell Cocktail" as it is described in Robinson's Mars Trilogy (Nov. 1993, Jun. 1995, Jul. 1997,) is a mixture of carbon, sulfur, and fluoride. The resulting mixture would be an artificial greenhouse gas that, when distributed across the planet, would raise temperatures in a relatively short period of time.

Mars currently has an average surface temperature of minus 60 Celsius. The temperature must only be raised a few degrees Celsius before we can begin to release bacteria and lichen. After that, a run-away effect should begin, with the sublimation of the southern ice cap, which is frozen carbon dioxide, and the CO2 thickening in the atmosphere and raising temperatures.

Theoretically, we could terraform too much. It is estimated that by melting the entire southern ice cap there would be a global temperature increase of 70 degrees Celsius. Once temperatures are above freezing, the northern ice cap will melt, releasing water vapor into the atmosphere, and creating vast oceans on the surface.

On Mars, the air pressure is only about 0.7% the thickness of our own. This fact was reinforced, although surprisingly, by the Mars Pathfinder. The atmospheric data taken by Pathfinder/Sojourner discovered that there were random variations in air pressure, causing the Mars equivalent of dust devils. This is explained by the theory that cold air is heated in the morning, and rises in whirlwind like patterns, very different than those of Earth. These might be the explanation of the dusty atmosphere. The minimum pressure reading taken by Pathfinder was 6.7 millibars, on sol (Martian day) 20 of the Pathfinder mission. This minimum in air pressure also corresponds with an enlargement of the southern ice cap. Pressure findings were taken by the ASI/MET package on the Pathfinder lander. - Jeff Harr

According to Dr. Christopher McKay, it would be possible that water vapor released from the northern ice-cap would raise the atmospheric pressure enough to reach an upper-Himalayan level. This would be good enough for simple oxygen masks on the surface for short periods of time, and as atmosphere thickened and the planet warmed, the pressure would rise as well.

Since Mars is smaller than Earth, a higher atmospheric pressure would be required to reach the equivalent of Earth's pressure, 1013 millibars, but that number is about 600 millibars higher than what is required, according to Robinson.

He suggests that we not make an exact duplicate of Earth, but just let Mars create itself. We won't be able to make another Earth. Mars is similar to Earth in many ways, but no matter what happens after terraforming, it will always remain the Red Planet.

Works Cited:

1) http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/mars/background/terra2.html
2) http://home.t-online.de/home/heinz.brodeck/redmars/projects/scientific/project_basis_concepts.htm
3) http://www.wirednews.com
4) http://mitglied.tripod.de/Marsproject/essay.htm
5) Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

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