Elon Musk says we should nuke Mars: Is terraforming the Red Planet wise?

The billionaire's off-the-cuff remarks on 'The Late Show with Stephen Colbert' has reignited scientific debate about altering the climate on Mars to be more supportive of human life.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows the vehicle above the 'Buckskin' rock target, where the mission collected its seventh drilled sample.

Elon Musk says there is a fast way and a slow way to warm up Mars to make it habitable for humans.

On Wednesday night on “The Late Show,” host Stephen Colbert wanted to know the fast way.

“Drop thermonuclear weapons over the poles,” the eccentric billionaire told him with a nod.

The apparently off-the-cuff remark was not entirely off the mark. Even NASA scientists believe that it is technologically possible to create considerable global climate changes on Mars to make it more Earth-like.

But it’s certainly no easy task. And scientists were quick to challenge Mr. Musk’s proposal.

"Terraforming Mars has been considered and discussed for a long time," Jason Smerdon, associate research professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told US News and World Report. "I nevertheless would be cautious about our ability to terraform and manage another planet when we struggle so mightily with the practical and preventative measures that are vitally needed to maintain our own."

Michael Mann, a professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, told US News that if and when that day comes, the theory goes like this:

If you suddenly transform all the ice at Mars’ poles into water vapor, you might be able to put enough of that vapor into the atmosphere to get what’s known as a “runaway positive feedback,” Mann explains, creating a climate warm enough to eventually support “permanent oceans and a moisture-laden atmosphere.”

Of course, this strategy is far from certain and carries significant risks. The resulting radiation from the bombs might make the planet uninhabitable or its native water unusable. The worst-case scenario is that it leads to a nuclear winter by kicking up so much dust and particles that they block out of the sun.

But there are other options, according to Nature World Reports. Greenhouses gases could be released slowly on Mars to help trap heat in the planet’s atmosphere. Other farfetched ideas include spreading black powder on the polar caps to absorb heat or smashing an asteroid into the poles. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.