01 September 2010

Terraforming Earth

Looking for a home
Earth is a nice planet. In comparison to any others we know about. Yet many environments are rather hostile, and knowing how to change that could provide us with the secrets to making places like Mars habitable for humans - or even how to avert some of the ecological disasters here on Earth. PZ has a post on the Pleistocene "re-wilding" of areas of the Mid-West US, together with reintroduction of megafauna, such as cloned or re-bred mammoths. Cool as that might be (and I would love to see the mammoths return, oh yes), it's not a solution to the problem of building real complex ecosystems.

Yet, on Ascension Island in the Atlantic, a largely barren cinder, a legacy of the truly great minds of Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker and others continues to take shape - an artificial ecosystem that is being primed with plants, and largely left to just get on with the job of bootstrapping itself. The BBC reports that over the past 150 years, cloud forest has become established on the highest peak of Ascension, involving purely imported species, shipped in over the decades by the Royal Navy. And it seems to be working - an ecosystem is steadily emerging from the barren wilderness and finding its own way of sustaining itself.

And this is making people turn their thoughts to Mars, the desert planet. Could something similar be done there? I will admit that as a small boy I used to think about this sort of thing. After watching Carl Sagan's "Cosmos", I imagined shipping millions of little clear plastic containers to Mars, loaded with seeds, nutrient and anti-freeze, to germinate, eventually break their containers, and start populating the barren red wastelands with greenery. Liberate the water, heat and thicken the atmosphere, and turn the desert to jungle.

Now, small boys know even less about ecosystems than the adults they turn into (I think - that may be a contentious point), and nowadays I can see a few obstacles to that. Such as the sheer tenuousness of the Martian atmosphere, and the great difficulties anticipated in getting plants to bloom.

But to heck with Mars - we should be doing more on EARTH, and this is where PZ hits the nail on the head. We need to return vast tracts of the surface of our planet to a proper wilderness state. Not a managed wilderness - but a proper wilderness, devoid of people. We (I would suggest) need to get used to the idea that we humans can live on our part, and let the other part act as our Gaian reservoir, our buffer. Not build roads or railways through it, not use it as eco-tourist destinations, but just leave it the heck alone - let evolution get on with the job.

Then we can put our cloned mammoths in the zoo, and we might even be able to squeeze a bit more time out of our civilisation before the whole project goes tits up.


  1. Do you know the classic '50s sci-fi novel "The Space merchants"? There is a sub-plot there about a huge project to make Venus habitable by gradually changing the atmosphere and importing plans. They make it sound almost possible.
    Beyond that it's a great novel. Very prescient in some things, but with typical '50s exaggerations (the fabulously wealthy wear jewelry made of wood).

  2. Hi Ariel,
    Is it this one? : http://www.amazon.co.uk/Space-Merchants-S-F-Masterworks/dp/0575075287/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1283464683&sr=8-1

    Looks good - I've never read it, although I did go through that phase in my teens where I thought I had read everything by Heinlein, Asimov, Pohl, Dick, Clarke... only to forget it all...

    You could have a point - maybe what Venus needs is for us to evolve airborne microbes that can colonise the clouds; they can munch away and get rid of that SO2, and continue to diversify and radiate.

    Effectively, evolution is much better at dealing with complex problems like ecosystems than human "design".