Will Earth Turn into Mars? … Can Mars Turn into Earth?

In my recent eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water the limnologist Lynna makes the following entry in her diary in 2057:

Last night after supper, Hilde and I went for a walk along Shaw to Christie Pits, where I used to play as a kid. She wanted to show me the magnificent aurora borealis that had been streaming dramatically for the past several weeks. When I was a kid, auroras this far south were unheard of. Now they are common. The night sky was clear, and we enjoyed the fresh spring air as we ambled down Shaw Street. We parked ourselves on the damp grass among other spectators of the colourful night sky and watched the dancing light show.

It was mesmerizing: ribbons of mostly green and pink light rippled as if tugged by a mischievous wind. They danced with a kind of life that brought me back to my childhood. Northern lights happen when the magnetic field of our planet is disturbed by the solar wind. As the particles slide along the contours of the Earth’s magnetosphere, they glow as they lose their energy. The particles energize the air molecules enough to make them glow in various colours, depending on the composition of the gases.

Earth’s magnetic field is generated and maintained by an ocean of superheated, swirling metal around a solid iron core. These act like a dynamo to create electrical currents, which, in turn, create our magnetic field. But our magnetic field is weakening, and a flip is imminent. In the past two hundred years, the field has weakened by fifteen percent. That’s why we’re seeing these auroras in Toronto. A weaker field creates more auroras. They’ve become common here, particularly during the winter and spring months. Nasa predicts that the field could be gone in five hundred years or less and then take another two hundred years to rebuild. 

The field will first become more complex and might show more than two magnetic poles—playing havoc with our navigation systems and God knows what else—until it is entirely gone. Then it will presumably build and align in the opposite direction. When the magnetic field goes, so will our shield against radiation. First, the ozone layer—our shield against ultraviolet rays—will be stripped away, and then the atmosphere may lose other key elements and grow thinner. Will we end up like Mars 4.2 billion years ago, when severe solar storms stole its very atmosphere and evaporated all its water? 

Mars once had a strong magnetic field like Earth. But then Mars cooled and its conducting geodynamo stopped rotating. In the absence of the protective field, the solar wind surged in and excited the ions in the upper Martian atmosphere to an escape velocity. The solar wind just swept the air away. The surface pressure of the Martian atmosphere dwindled from one thousand millibars to six millibars. Mars lost about the same atmosphere that Earth has today. 

Mars is our destiny; it’s just a question of when. We’re all batteries, running dry. I considered this probable fate for Earth as we watched the exquisite example of our changing magnetic field. But I didn’t share it with Hilde, who watched with her mouth open in rapt wonder. If she’s lucky, she will experience no more of this progression than these amazing auroras. The weakening magnetic field and the associated loss of protection and atmosphere won’t happen for a while. I hope.
A Diary in the Age of Water

Earth’s magnetic field

In a 2019 article in New Atlas, David Szondy tells us that “North isn’t quite where it was after the Earth’s north geomagnetic pole made an unexpected sprint across arctic Canada.” Apparently the magnetic pole is moving faster than predicted. The shift is caused by a push/pull between two patches of magnetic field—one under Canada and another under Siberia. The Canadian one appears to be weakening…

Every few hundred thousand years our magnetic field reverses—with the magnetic north switching places with the magnetic south. The last major geomagnetic reversal occurred 780,000 years ago. Between the full geomagnetic reversals—which can last up to 10,000 years—shorter disruptions occur. These are called geomagnetic excursions and are short-lived, involving temporary changes to the magnetic field that last from a few hundred to a few thousand years. The most recent recorded geomagnetic excursion is called the Laschamps Excursion some 42,000 years ago.

“The Laschamps Excursion was the last time the magnetic poles flipped,” explains Chris Turney, one of the lead scientists of a study reported in Science. “They swapped places for about 800 years before changing their minds and swapping back again.”

Although scientists have known about these magnetic pole events, they have not clearly understood their impacts on life and the environment. A study published in the journal Science reported on a recent discovery in New Zealand of an ancient kauri tree, that not only confirmed the time of the magnetic collapse, but shed some light on the dramatic period of environmental change, particularly in the time leading up to the few hundred years the Earth’s magnetic field was reversed. These included a depleted ozone layer, higher levels of ultraviolet radiation, and increased atmospheric ionization, all coalescing about 42,000 years ago in the Laschamps Excursion. “Early humans around the world would have seen amazing auroras, shimmering veils and sheets across the sky,” says Alan Cooper, one of the lead scientists. “It must have seemed like the end of days.”

Ancient Kauri tree unearthed in New Zealand (image by New Atlas)

The researchers also speculated that the magnetic field disruption led to an influx of cave art, driven by the need to seek shelter from the increase in ultraviolet rays—particularly during solar flares. The researchers also suggested that the event prompted the extinction of several megafauna in Australia and the end for Neanderthals—whose extinction occurred around 42,000 years ago.

Cooper points to the current movements of the north magnetic pole across the Northern Hemisphere as a potential warning sign of an impending event.

“This speed – alongside the weakening of Earth’s magnetic field by around nine per cent in the past 170 years – could indicate an upcoming reversal,” says Cooper. “If a similar event happened today, the consequences would be huge for modern society. Incoming cosmic radiation would destroy our electric power grids and satellite networks.”

Alan Cooper

Terraforming Mars (images by NASA)

Making Mars Inhabitable By Re-establishing its Magnetic Field

“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said NASA’s John Grunsfeld.”This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water – albeit briny – is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”

That was step one. Mars was once just like Earth, with a thick atmosphere and lots of water.

In a 2017 article in Science Alert, Peter Dockrill reported that “NASA wants to launch a giant magnetic field to make Mars habitable.” This bold plan was to give Mars its atmosphere back and make it habitable for future generations of human colonists consists of launching a giant magnetic shield into space to protect Mars from solar winds. With the shield in place, scientists argued that we could restore the atmosphere and terraform the Martian environment so that liquid water flows on the surface again. Mars once had a thick atmosphere like Earth currently has. 

In 2018 NASA concluded: “Our results suggest that there is not enough CO2 (carbon dioxide) remaining on Mars to provide significant greenhouse warming were the gas to be put into the atmosphere; in addition, most of the CO2 gas is not accessible and could not be readily mobilized. As a result, terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology.”

Then in 2019, Harvard scientists proposed a way around the problem of insufficient CO2 for greenhouse warming. They proposed that by “covering certain areas of the Martian surface with a thin layer of silica aerogel, namely areas with large amounts of water ice, enough sunlight will come through for warming and combine with natural heating processes beneath the surface to create a potentially habitable environment.”

The study demonstrated through experiments and modelling that under Martian environmental conditions, a 2–3 cm-thick layer of silica aerogel would simultaneously transmit sufficient visible light for photosynthesis, block hazardous ultraviolet radiation and raise temperatures underneath it permanently to above the melting point of water, without the need for any internal heat source. 

“Once temperatures were adequate, the gases released from the ice in the lakes and regolith (soil) would build up to form a pressurized atmosphere under the aerogel layer. If successful up to that point, microbes and plant life could theoretically survive. “Placing silica aerogel shields over sufficiently ice-rich regions of the Martian surface could therefore allow photosynthetic life to survive there with minimal subsequent intervention,” the scientists suggested. This photosynthetic life would go on to produce oxygen for pickier Earth dwellers to utilize,” reports Dacia J. Ferris of Teslarati.

p.s. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees the irony of this situation: Mars has insufficient CO2to warm its atmosphere, when Earth suffers from an excess of this greenhouse-warming gas. While going to Mars is one of my dreams (quite unrealizable for me; but I’m allowed to dream, no?), I still harbor an unsettling feeling that comes with the uncertainty about our prowess and respect in this endeavor. We haven’t exactly been successful in controlling our own runaway global warming or other degradation of our living ecosystems. Read Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles to get my meaning.

“Watch those disposable coffee cups!”

  

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Climate Change: What We Can Do—Nina talks to the Toronto Star

Nina Munteanu

Nina Munteanu (photo by Richard Lautens)

The Toronto Star recently spoke to Nina Munteanu with two questions about climate change. These were included in a recent handbook published by the Star entitled “Undeniable: Canada’s Changing Climate—What We Can Do Now.” In it, The Star showed how the majority of Canadians place climate change as a top priority. In “Let’s Talk” The Star interviews computer scientist and head of UofT’s School of the Environment Steve Easterbrook. Questions involving local community action and the importance of hope.

In “Your Carbon Footprint” The Star showed how China and the US together produce over half of the entire greenhouse gases emitted annually by the top ten countries that include EU 28, India, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia, Canada, and Iran. These ten countries currently emit seventy percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. China (11.912 Mt CO2) continues to lead in greenhouse gas emissions, being over twice the US, the next large emitter (6.371 Mt CO2).

Top Ten GreenhouseGas Countries

However, when The Star looked at per capita greenhouse emissions, Canada jumped to the top rank at 21 tonnes per person annually, followed by the US (20 tonnes/person). By comparison, China—ranked the highest for total emissions—measured only 8.73 tonnes per person annually. And Bangladesh measured 1.1 tonnes/person.

GreenhouseGases-PerCapita

“Most scientists agree that in the coming decades we need to limit our individual annual carbon footprint to 1-2 tons,” says The Star. This entails making personal changes to cut our carbon output. One example is driving less or converting to a hybrid or electric car. “Our behaviours, whether good or bad, are contagious,” says The Star. I agree. It is important to not only do what we can but to share with others and provide our reasons. Seth Wynes, a geographer at the University of British Columbia concurs: “It’s not just about what you do, it’s about setting an example for others.” Research suggests, for example that homeowners are more likely to install solar panels when someone else does it first in their neighbourhood. Wynes in 2017 co-authored a study that ranks the most effective lifestyle changes to curb an individual’s carbon footprint.

In “Four Things You Can Do”, The Star suggests the following key initiatives:

  1. Eat less beef
  2. Live car-free or go hybrid / electric
  3. Invest in green infrastructure
  4. Reduce air travel

Greenhouse Gases-FOOD

The Star also provided good advice on how to talk to children about our changing climate. They provide excellent examples of children empowering themselves by making a difference—instead of becoming depressed with what they are inheriting. In “Political Checkup” The Star discusses with experts how we can best interact with our political leaders to engage and ensure positive change. In “Faith and Community” The Star showcases examples of faith communities addressing our waste stream.

In “The ChangeMakers” The Star asked the same two questions of five Canadians who are making climate change a top priority. They included:

  • Franny Ladell Yakelashek: 12-year old environmental rights activist from Victoria, BC
  • Jocelyn Joe-Strack: Indigenous scientist and storyteller, Whitehorse, Yukon
  • Kathy Bardswick: director of the Institute for Clean Growth and Climate Change, Guelph, ON
  • Gordon McBean: climatologist and professor emeritus at Western University, London, ON
  • Nina Munteanu: ecologist, instructor at The University of Toronto and author of eco-fiction and climate fiction, Toronto, ON.

Q1: What is the one thing about climate change that keeps you up at night?

Nina: I worry that my son and his kids will end up experiencing one of my dystopias from one of my books. My son lives in Vancouver, and my main concern is that he and his kids won’t have the chance to live safely and enjoy a stable and beautiful planet because we have wrecked it for them.

That leads me to the second thing that keeps me up at night, which is that nobody cares. Or that they are scared to care. We’re still going about our business like nothing is happening.

That really frustrates me. I’m a scientist and we’ve been talking about this for a long time; for me it’s been decades. My frustration is that we are still debating climate change, and we should be acting on it.

Q2: What is the one thing Canadians can do to act on climate change?

Nina: I think it has to be three things. First, plant a tree; make an actual difference through action. By doing that, we get out from hiding under the bed and face the monster of climate change and show that we care and that we are not alone. And that — taking direct action — will give us courage and hope.

Second, vote for green politicians. Politicians need to hear directly from their communities, they need you to push them to act on climate change.

Third, find your tribe and create a movement. Everyone says that people have the power, but that power comes best through numbers and solidarity. Find your tribe, and you’ll find yourself more motivated.

For answers to these two questions by the other changemakers, please go to the Toronto Star’s “What You Can Do About Climate Change” site.

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Nina’s short story collection of eco-fiction can be found in “Natural Selection” published by Pixl Press. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.