Here’s a map of Mars with as much water as Earth
A 71% wet Mars would have two major land masses and one giant 'Medimartian Sea.'
- Sci-fi visions of Mars have changed over time, in step with humanity's own obsessions.
- Once the source of alien invaders, the Red Planet is now deemed ripe for terraforming.
- Here's an extreme example: Mars with exactly as much surface water as Earth.
Misogynists in space
Mars – and Martians – were a staple of 1930s pulp science fiction.
Image: ScienceBlogs.de - CC BY-SA 2.0
"Oh, my God, it's a woman," he said in a tone of devastating disgust.
"Stowaway to Mars" hasn't aged well. First serialised in 1936 as "Planet Plane" and set in the then distant future of 1981, the fourth novel by sci-fi legend John Wyndham (writing as John Benyon) could have been remembered mainly for its charming retro-futurism, if it weren't so blatantly, offhandedly misogynistic.
Fortunately, each era's sci-fi says more about itself than about the future. That also goes for how we see Mars. 'Classic' Martians, like the ones in H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds," are creatures from a dying planet, using their superior firepower to invade Earth and escape their doom. That trope reflected 19th- and 20th-century fears about mechanized total warfare, which hung like a sword of Damocles over otherwise increasingly placid lifestyles.
Closer inspection of the Red Planet has revealed the absence of green men; and now we're the dying planet – pardon my Swedish. So the focus has shifted from interplanetary war to terraforming the fourth rock from the Sun, creating something all those protest signs say we don't have: a Planet B.
How to keep Mars from killing us
Mars today: red and dusty, dead and deadly.
Image: NASA - public domain.
Cue Elon Musk, who doesn't just build Teslas but also heads SpaceX, a program to make humanity an interplanetary species by landing the first humans on Mars by 2024 as the pioneers of a permanent, self-sufficient and growing colony.
Such a colony would benefit from an environment that doesn't try to kill you if you take off your space helmet. Martian temperatures average at around -55°C (-70°F), and its atmosphere has just 1 percent the volume of Earth's, in a mix that contains far less oxygen. Changing all that to an ecosystem that's more like our own, would be a herculean task.
From Red Mars to Green Mars
Before and after images of a terraformed Mars in the lobby of SpaceX offices in Hawthorne, California.
Image: Steve Jurvetson / Flickr - CC BY 2.0
So how would Musk go about it? In August 2019, he launched a t-shirt with the two-word answer: 'Nuke Mars'. The idea would be to heat up and release the carbon dioxide frozen at Mars's poles, creating a much warmer and wetter planet – as Mars may have been about 4 billion years ago – though still not with a breathable atmosphere.
Alternatives to nuclear explosions: photosynthetic organisms on the ground or giant mirrors in space, either of which could also melt the Martian poles. However, many scientists question the logistics of these plans, and even whether there is enough readily accessible CO2 on Mars to fuel the climate change that Musk (and others) envision.
Ah, but why stop at the objections of the current scientific consensus? Sometimes, you have to dream ahead to see the place that can't be built yet. In the lobby of SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, California, Red Mars and Green Mars are shown side by side. The terraformed version on the right looks green and cloudy and blue – Earth-like, or at least habitable-looking.
Or how about a Blue Mars?
A map of Mr Bhattarai's wet Mars, in the Robinson projection.
Image: A.R. Bhattarai, reproduced with kind permission; modified with MaptoGlobe
But why stop there? This map looks forward to a Mars that doesn't just have some surface water, but exactly as much as Earth – which means quite a lot. No less than 71 percent of our planet's surface is covered by oceans, seas, and lakes. The dry bits are our continents and islands.
In the case of Mars, a 71 percent wet planet leaves the planet's northern hemisphere mainly ocean, with most of the dry land located in the southern half.
Most of the dry land is connected via the south pole but is articulated in two distinct land masses. Both semi-continents are separated by a wide bay that corresponds to Argyre Planitia.
The one in the west is centered on Tharsis, a vast volcanic tableland. To the north, attached to the main land mass, is Alba Mons, the largest volcano on Mars in terms of area (with a span comparable to that of the continental United States).
It's about 6.8 km (22,000 ft) high, which is about one-third of Olympus Mons, a volcano now located on its own island off the northwest coast of Tharsis. At a height of over 21 km (72,000 ft), Olympus Mons is the highest volcano on Mars and the tallest planetary mountain (1) currently known on the solar system. Olympus rises about 20 km (66,000 ft) above the sea level as shown on this map.
A new civilization
Spinning globe view of Mr Bhattarai's wet Mars.
Image: A.R. Bhattarai, reproduced with kind permission; modified with MaptoGlobe
Mars's eastern continent is centered not on a plateau, but on a depression that on today's 'dry' Mars is called Hellas Planitia, one of the largest impact craters in the Solar system. On the 'wet' Mars of this map, the crater is the central and largest part of a sea that is surrounded by land, a Martian version of the Mediterranean Sea. Perhaps one day this Medimartian Sea will be the Mare Nostrum of a new civilization.
To the northeast of the circular semi-continent is a large island that on 'our' Mars is Elysium Mons, a volcano that is the planet's third-tallest mountain (14.1 km, 46,000 ft).
The map is the work of Aaditya Raj Bhattarai, a civil engineering student at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu (Nepal). Talking to Inverse, he said he hoped his map could help further the Martian plans of Elon Musk and SpaceX: "This is part of my side project where I calculate the volume of water required to make life on Mars sustainable and the sources required for those water volumes from comets that will come nearby Mars in the next 100 years."
Strange Maps #1043
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) The tallest mountain in the Solar system, planetary or otherwise, we know of today, is a peak which rises 22.5 km (14 mi) from the center of the Rheasilvia crater on Vesta, a giant asteroid which makes up 9 percent of the entire mass of the asteroid belt.
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An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
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