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Modelling Mars for Human Habitation

Imagine a massive asteroid hitting Earth. Or runaway climate change. Or a nuclear war. A global catastrophe will befall humans on Earth eventually, and, as the astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote, the only way to ensure long-term survival of any civilization is to become spacefaring. What better place to start than with our neighboring planet Mars? Humans will travel to Mars as early as the next decade. However, currently humans cannot survive in Mars’ atmosphere. For a start, with an average surface temperature of -60°C, it is much too cold. Also, the atmosphere is very thin, meaning that the surface pressure is just 0.6% of that on Earth. Furthermore, there is not enough oxygen for humans to breathe; most of the atmosphere is made up of carbon dioxide.

By manufacturing powerful greenhouse gases on Mars and releasing them into the atmosphere, it might be possible to warm the planet and create a greenhouse effect. This leads to further questions: By building up and warming the atmosphere, could liquid water flow on Mars? Could the atmosphere be oxygenated and become breathable by humans? How long might this take? How stable would the  modified atmosphere be? And, are powerful greenhouse gases on Earth equally powerful on Mars?

The best available tools to address these questions are global chemistry-climate models. These types of models typically run on supercomputers or other high performance computing facilities, and are capable of representing the myriad complex processes controlling atmospheric chemistry and climate.

We are collaborating with a group from ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Switzerland to adapt the SOCOL (Solar Climate Ozone Links) Earth chemistry-climate model to simulate Mars’ atmosphere. Dr Laura Revell (Bodeker Scientific) and Dr Andrea Stenke (ETH Zurich) have been awarded a Catalyst: Seeding grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand to get this project up and running.

We plan to use the resulting Mars chemistry-climate model to explore planetary engineering of Mars’ atmosphere, and whether Mars’ cold and arid climate could one day become hospitable for human occupation. By modelling the very different conditions on Mars, we will obtain deeper insights with respect to modelling Earth’s atmosphere, and the way in which climate systems respond to anthropogenic forcing.

For more information, contact Laura Revell, laura(at)