Strolling in the Forests of Mars


The idea of terraforming other planets, especially Mars, to make them habitable for people has long been a staple theme in science fiction. But science fiction has a way of becoming science fact. At the moment Mars' atmosphere is too thin and too cold to support earth life. But NASA and Mexican scientists are researching how to plant a forest on Mars. They are particularly interested in how trees manage to survive in the inhospitable environment of Mexico's highest volcano. Reuters reports:

Scientists are using the pine-forested slopes of a Mexican volcano as a test bed to see if trees could grow on a heated-up Mars, part of a vision of making the chilly and barren red planet habitable for humans one day.

Planetary scientists at NASA and Mexican universities believe if they can warm Mars using heat-trapping gases, raise the air pressure and start photosynthesis, they could create an atmosphere that would support oxygen-breathing life forms…

By pumping in highly insulating gases like methane or nitrous oxide, the scientists think they could heat Mars to 41 degrees Fahrenheit from minus 67 F now. That would match temperatures where trees grow at 13,780 feet on Pico de Orizaba.

Having trees on Mars, as opposed to only simple plant forms like algae or lichens, would open the possibility of humans one day being able to breathe Martian air.

The scientists are studying what makes trees refuse to grow above a certain point, where temperatures drop and the air becomes thinner, to see how easily they could grow on Mars…

"It's possible Mars could have trees in 100 years. (But first) we need to understand what sets the tree line on Earth," McKay said by telephone from NASA's Ames center in California.

Scientists are already using biotech to tinker with plants in a quest to adapt them to the harsh conditions of the red planet.

Bonus issue: If Mars should turn out to have indigenous life of some type, should humanity forgo terraforming the planet?