How to colonize Venus, and why it's a better plan than Mars

Venus: Hot, toxic, hellish... home?

How to colonize Venus, and why it's a better plan than Mars
A digital elevation map of Maat Mons, a five-mile-high volcano surrounded by lava flows on the surface of Venus. Image: NASA.
  • When we think of colonizing space, our first thoughts are to the Moon and Mars.
  • Venus, despite being incredibly inhospitable on the surface, might actually be a better target for colonization.
  • Suspending blimps in the Venusian clouds is not only feasible, but offers some of the most Earth-like conditions in the solar system.

Venus, the second planet from our sun, is a downright terrifying place. Its atmosphere is almost all carbon dioxide, with the exception of the clouds that rain sulfuric acid. Its surface is a foggy, yellow desert dotted by volcanoes many times larger than those found on Earth. Its mean surface temperature reaches a blistering 860 degrees Fahrenheit. But despite these inhospitable conditions, Venus may be one of the best spots for humans to settle in our solar system.

Settling on a hellish planet

An artist's rendering of the surface of Venus.

ESA/NASA

While the two may not seem alike at first blush, Venus is quite similar to Earth compared to other planets in our solar system. So much so, the Morning Star is sometimes called Earth's "sister planet". Its gravity is 90% as strong as Earth's, compared to Mars' ~38%, meaning that our muscles won't atrophy, and our bones won't decalcify as they do in low-gravity environments. It's roughly the same size as Earth, and it's the closest planet in our solar neighborhood.

This makes Venus a tempting target for future colonization, but what about all of those deadly characteristics mentioned above? It's hard to imagine life in an atmosphere full of carbon dioxide, with no water, and at incredible heat. Not to mention that if you were to stand on its surface, the weight of the Venusian atmosphere would be the same as diving 3,000 feet underwater (which you don't want to try). There's no arguing that the surface of Venus is brutal. That's why we wouldn't live on Venus's surface.

Instead, a hypothetical Venusian colony would be suspended by blimps floating 31 miles above the surface. This might seem farfetched, but it isn't entirely science fiction. While there are plenty of challenges associated with living above the surface of Venus, in many ways, establishing a colony in the clouds of Venus would be easier than doing so on the surface of Mars. Here's why.

Paradise in the clouds

In Venus's upper atmosphere, the pressure would be about 1,000 hectopascals (hPa), which is extremely close to Earth's 1013 hPa at sea level. Not only will humans be able to tolerate this exceedingly well, but since the pressure outside a blimp would be close to that inside the blimp, any punctures would result in a repairable leak rather than a catastrophic explosion. As an analogy, you can consider this like opening the door to an airplane on the runway compared to doing so during a flight. Above the surface's crushing pressure, the temperature would be much more manageable, too, ranging from 32 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

These qualities mean that a human could happily work outside the habitat, so long as they had air to breathe and protection from the clouds of sulfuric acid. Acid rain might seem like a problem, but there are plenty of easily constructed materials resistant to such acid, like polytetrafluorine—also known as Teflon.

What about water? Venus barely has any, unfortunately. But those deadly clouds made of sulfuric acid also present an opportunity. Sulfuric acid is made of hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen molecules. Through electrolysis, these molecules can be separated and recombined to form water, leaving only sulfur as a waste product. As for oxygen, Venus has an abundance of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, which can be used to grow plants for producing breathable air and food.

Venus' atmosphere would also provide shielding from cosmic radiation, which can both scramble human brains over time and irradiate food, soil, and pretty much everything else. Mars, unfortunately, has a very thin atmosphere, which would not provide this benefit.

Full-scale colonization

JAXA/NASA/Lockheed Martin

It's nice to know that exploring Venus through manned missions is possible, but our long-term goal of becoming an interplanetary species and establishing a colony must be more challenging. Generating the lift for entire cities to float in the Venusian clouds seems like it would be a monumental feat of engineering. To be sure, it would be hard, but not quite as hard as one would think.

Geoffrey Landis, a NASA scientist and science-fiction author who studied the feasibility of human colonies on Venus, explained that floating a city 31 miles above the planet's surface would be relatively straightforward. Because Venus' atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen—the regular air you're breathing now—could easily generate the necessary lift. "A one-kilometer diameter spherical [balloon] will lift 700,000 tons—two Empire State Buildings. A two-kilometer diameter [balloon] would lift six million tons," writes Landis.

What's more, Landis says, "Venus has plenty of room. A billion habitats, each one with a population of hundreds of thousands of humans, could be placed [to] float in the Venus atmosphere."

Of course, none of this will be happening any time soon. While this colony would work in theory, we still need to learn more about Venus. Mars takes up much of the limelight in our interplanetary exploration, while most missions to Venus were made decades ago by Soviet probes. NASA does have a plan for a 30-day crewed mission to Venus called the High-Altitude Venus Operational Concept (HAVOC), but this project is sadly inactive. As we gear up to establish colonies on the moon and on Mars, however, hopefully we keep our sister planet in mind.


A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • 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 .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

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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