Geo-engineering – Part 3: Terraforming in the 21st Century

When I was a younger man I wrote a short story about a girl who lived on Mars. Her father, a scientist, was in the business of changing the Martian atmosphere and his gift to his daughter was to give her a living tree outside the protected air envelope that was home to his family on Mars. The science he practiced was terraforming and making Mars more earth like was his goal.

With CO2 on the rise on Earth the science of re-engineering the planet now resides here, not on a neighbouring planet like Mars. But re-engineering may be not too far in our future.

So let’s begin this discussion with the problem of Earth and rising CO2. What are we facing and what can we do to reverse the process that we refer to as climate change or global warming. And then let’s talk about what it would take to change Mars.


Current CO2 Levels

Want to know the current levels of atmospheric CO2? Go to CO2 Now. For members of the lobby attempting through civil disobedience to raise the profile of climate change with the public, this site ticker must be disheartening. As of July 2011 we have reached 392.39 parts per million 42 points above what is considered safe by many climatologists. And the number isn’t about to go down in the near future.

At the present rate of carbon emissions we could see CO2 levels between 500 and 700 parts per million by 2100. The consequences of increasing CO2 have been described in a previous blog. In that blog we discussed ways to mitigate and reduce CO2 levels.

Technology, however, can only help us if we recognize the ecological problem we face through uncontrolled rises in greenhouse gases. What kind of social re-engineering is required to change our species behaviour to end and reverse the rise in CO2 and other greenhouse gases?

350 – The Magic Number

When we talk to political and thought leaders about bringing CO2 back to a manageable level they provide a shopping list of behavioural changes usually followed by a cautionary statement about economic sustainability and manageable cost. What are the changes that we seek?

  • Changing our fossil fuel consumption dramatically by reducing our dependence on oil, natural gas, and coal as primary energy sources
  • Overall dramatic reductions in energy consumption to fuel our industry, habitats and transportation needs through technology improvements and innovation
  • Building new and rebuilding old infrastructure to maximize energy conservation and reduce pollution
  • Investing in sustainable, renewable energy from solar, wind, tidal and other non-fossil fuel sources
  • Fostering a new approach to land use from forest sustainability and reforestation to agriculture including herding, crop selection and soil management
  • Supporting ecological and socially responsible initiatives within developing nations to create sustainable economies that are not held back from achieving quality of life for their populations equal to those in developed nations


The problem with these solutions is their fuzziness. There is nothing concrete. These are goals without policy, legislation and enforcement. When the world’s nations got together in 1997 to create the first global act focused on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, mechanisms were created to encourage governments and industry to act.

Binding targets were established for controlling and reducing the following greenhouse gases: CO2, methane, nitrous oxide, hydroflourocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexaflouride. The 37 industrialized countries and European Union agreed to reductions and a timetable. Whereas some countries have demonstrated a true commitment to Kyoto target reductions, others have done little to meet their obligations. One of these is my country, Canada, where changes in government, changes in industrial priorities and initiatives to back development of bitumen resources, has led to an abandonment of targets. Canada’s example is not isolated. A number of countries fault the process because, they argue, Kyoto wasn’t a global initiative. The United States participated in the process but did not sign the final agreement.

Kyoto left out the Developing World and focused only on established industrial economies. That meant China, India, Brazil and a number of other fast growing economies were not partner to the agreement.

In defence of Kyoto, the countries that were signatories represented the economies that were the worst polluters and generators of greenhouse gases at the time of signing, with the United States the exception. Unfortunately the signatories for the most part plus the United States continue to be the worst polluters on the planet even with the implementation of some policies coming out of Kyoto.

A successor to Kyoto remains elusive. Science fiction writers, however, have imagined feats of engineering that demonstrate the ability to alter a planet in its entirety to make it inhabitable. Yet here we are on Earth doing the very thing, but negatively, through our industrial processes and the burning of fossil fuels. Can we as a species learn from altering another world how to rescue ours?

The Science of Terraforming – the Case for Mars and Other Planets

Out of the works of science fiction writers has come terraforming – an idea that uses advanced technology to alter a planet’s atmosphere and surface to allow us to inhabit it without having to rely on pressurized living accommodation and manufactured atmospheres.

Mars is usually the first planet in our Solar System that we think about when we speculate on future human habitations beyond Earth. Mars today is cold and dry although we have discovered lots of sub-surface and polar ice, enough in fact, if it all melted, to form a surface-wide ocean more than 30 meters deep. Like Earth, Mars has abundant amounts of carbon and oxygen (CO2 is 95.3% of the atmosphere), nitrogen and argon. This atmosphere bears a resemblance to what existed here on Earth billions of years ago. Bacterial life altered Earth’s atmosphere creating free oxygen as a byproduct of CO2 and ultimately allowing animals and plants to evolve.

Mars today is also very cold with an average temperature of -63 Celsius (-81 Fahrenheit). In contrast Earth’s average temperature is 14 Celsius (58 Fahrenheit). In the Martian summer temperatures can reach 24 Celsius (75 Fahrenheit) at the equator so it can get reasonably comfortable on a nice day. Mars also experiences seasons and has an axial rotation similar to Earth as well as a day that is about one-half hour longer than ours. So adapting to Mars with its many similarities to Earth sounds possible.

If we were to live on Mars we would have to accommodate to its extremes but we could also change the atmosphere not at a geological pace, but rather quickly. The goal would be to introduce technologies that would create a greenhouse effect, thickening and heating the atmosphere to make it habitable. This could take centuries or as much as a millennia based on our perception of what is doable today. As we get better at the technology of terraforming the time to re-engineer the planet may be considerably less.

What kinds of technology could we deploy that would turn Mars into a habitable place? There is nothing we can imagine today that would give us the capability of altering Mars into an Earth-like habitat in a hundred years. But we do have technology in its formative stages as well as technologies deployed on Earth that can alter Mars over a longer period. These include:

  • space mirrors
  • solar-powered greenhouse gas generators
  • artificial photosynthesis
  • phototropic bacteria
  • comets and asteroids


Space Mirrors

Space mirrors are large reflective surfaces made from the same materials used in solar sail technology. Space mirrors have been considered as a means to deflect solar rays from Earth to offset the greenhouse effect on Earth. Whereas a solar mirror deployed in Earth orbit would be used to block sunlight, many deployed  in orbit around Mars would reflect solar radiation into the atmosphere. A single large mirror with a diameter of 250 kilometers (155 miles) could be built, using materials found in space, and deployed 350,000 kilometers away from the planet raising surface temperatures in a small area such as a polar ice cap. This would could cause the ice to melt releasing greenhouse gases.

Solar-Powered Gas Generators

Gas generators could be a key way to alter the Martian atmosphere. Today on Earth we have lots of industry experience generating greenhouse gases that burn fossil fuels. This same atmospheric heating effect could be reproduced on Mars by setting up hundreds of factories that use the carbon in CO2 and pump out oxygen. If the factories were largely constructed out of Martian materials it would make this economically more plausible. Such factories would slowly oxygenate the atmosphere over centuries.

Artificial Photosynthesis

Current research on artificial photosynthesis uses nanotechnology to mimic plant leaves. Plants breakdown water molecules using captured sunlight. From this the plant receives carbohydrates as fuel and oxygen as a byproduct. Plants use chlorophyll to achieve this result. Creating an artificial equivalent to chlorophyll for use on Earth is all about creating new energy sources to replace fossil fuels and not about oxygen.

Research focuses on generating liquid hydrogen or methanol from the process with the hydrogen used as a fuel or in fuel cells. On Earth water is plentiful and so is sunlight. And both appear to be plentiful on Mars as well.

Artificial photosynthesis uses a catalyst in place of chlorophyll to split water molecules and generate the energy needed to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen. Current research experiments are testing manganese, titanium dioxide and cobalt oxide to mimic what plants do.

Finding these materials on Mars and building industrial-scale artificial photosynthesis generators would be a massive project.

Phototropic Bacteria

Bacteria created Earth’s thick atmosphere with its abundant oxygen and nitrogen. Thriving on CO2, bacteria could prove to be an effective terraforming solution for Mars. Today on Earth we use phototropic or photosynthetic bacteria for all kinds of biotech applications including water and wastewater purification, chemical remediation, fertilizer, aquaculture supplements and animal feed. Phototropic bacteria may prove to be efficient at harvesting energy from light. Adding phototropic bacteria into the terraforming mix on Mars could accelerate the planet’s atmospheric conversion.

Comets and Asteroids – When Worlds Collide

Like the proposals to tow Greenland and Antarctic icebergs to Saudi Arabia, some space scientists have come up with a solution that involves moving objects the size of asteroids and comets near Mars and then making them collide with the surface of the planet. The motive power would be ion propulsion or nuclear powered rocket engines attached to these space bodies. Icy asteroids contain lots of water and greenhouse gases and if allowed to collide with Mars would not only release gases and water, but also massive amounts of energy equivalent to thousands of atomic bombs.

A single asteroid or small comet collision could raise the atmospheric temperature of Mars several degrees which would accelerate melting of subsurface and polar ice. Such a catastrophic approach to terraforming would make Mars uninhabitable for a period of time but as the planet recovered from each collision it would be closer and closer to becoming much more Earth-like.

What Terraforming Can Teach Us About Restoring Earth’s CO2 Levels

In the 21st century our species will land on Mars and begin to explore that planet. We will master technologies to make it possible for us to survive on its surface, at first by creating a life support system and artificial environment to sustain us. In our Martian lab we will apply Earth technology in new ways to make Mars a more livable environment. The technologies that allow us to terraform our neighbour will be such that adapting them to re-engineer Earth will only be a matter of course. We won’t master planet re-engineering in the 21st century but we will take the first steps along this path. It took billions of years for natural processes on Earth to create a habitable planet. The promise of restoring Earth to a sustainable environment will come as we learn how to transform our neighbour, Mars.


terraforming Mars

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...